Saturday, September 27, 2014

Life without the NHS

So what exactly would happen if there was no NHS? And by that I don't mean the badge or the name because I suspect THAT will always stay..its the principle of "free at the point of access irrespective of social background etc etc". What would actually happen? Social media, newsprint is abuzz with the theories, primarily because it's becoming a battleground for the politicians and with elections coming closer, the noise has just got a bit more shriller.

And everyone has an opinion. People who have never worked anywhere else have an opinion, people have an opinion with wild fantasy laden, anecdote based remarks, people use study which suits them to make a point..and as ever, a practical based debate is impossible. Recently on twitter an event was held called "Without the NHS" and some of the tweets were quite interesting, fuelled with passion, laced with political beliefs, a few laced in reality but majority by those who believe it should stay as it is.

So, let me give you a perspective - having worked in a country where there is no such socialised medicine. Let's get some basic facts straight. The principle that because the NHS is free thereby ts the best medicine ever is frankly odd. The reason the care is such high quality is because of the staff and the care they provide. When folks say their relatives were saved because the NHS is here...believe you me, folks are saved by caring healthcare professionals all over the world, every day, with high quality care..irrespective of what the system is. So what would happen if the NHS became insurance based or the principle of free for all went? I will tell you what will happen. Overall care will not suffer..it will simply become 2 tiered. Consultants, GPs..their families will continue to get high quality care because they will be able to AFFORD the insurance. For a significant number, it will, simply put, become a care system where they will pay and recieve care to the extent they can afford.

Hurts doesn't it? Tugs at your ethos of socialism? Let's flip this then...how do you feel when the UK to continue provide high quality care raids other countries in desperate need of nurses and doctors to fill up their own stocks..simply with the promise of a better life? Fair? Or does the principle of socialism stop at the UK boundaries? Or does the responsibility end with donating to Children In Need or something equivalent? Tough isnt it? I have worked in a system where I have seen people sell their utensils to buy medications, take huge loans to fund an MRI, get sucked into a world of corruption where the ones who could afford did and still does afford the best treatment money can buy..and though this may sound harsh...sometimes, even better care than what the NHS can sometimes provide.

I have seen the darker side of what "healthcare based on your worth" looks like and I cannot, simply CANNOT stress enough the importance of keeping the principle of the NHS intact...not the NHS, but the principle. Today its a political battleground and promises being made will only stop the slippery slope for a bit, not halt it. Primary care is crumbling, hospital Trusts are struggling...its decision time folks...NHS..free for need or free for want? And Life without the NHS or the principle? There are many and many on twitter and rest who will be fine without it...but there will be many out there who will struggle...big time. I will not regale you with my tales of working in an Emergency department in Calcutta...you won't want to know it, trust me. But when you have 2 folks gasping for breath, no nebulisers around you, 1 oxygen tank- and then you also work somewhere where most people are worried about the 4 hour target rather than a tubing of oxygen...let me tell you this...you don't want to lose the principle.

The NHS will always stay...but the slope has started..some procedures already banned, some products already being pushed by companies to "buy as its amazing"...been there, done that..and it wasn't nice wearing that T shirt either. Fight for the principle- its worth it.

In simple plain terms? You have no idea what you have got- or what you are heading towards. As a professional, I will always try to provide the best care- whoever employs me...but as regards the rest? Crunch time is here. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Lest we forget

I am all for innovation and working differently. In fact, the diabetes team where I work is well known for being at the cutting edge of working differently...check the articles, the awards, the feedback from local patients,primary care, CCGs...it is a fact that the diabetes team from Portsmouth are always up for trying new things, new ways of working within the existing financial constraints and envelopes....so the last thing you can accuse  me of being a cynic towards innovation.

But some things are now starting to grate...there's now been a few meetings I have attended, seeing a few twitter chats, a few workshops I have been to...where I think people are now being misled, deliberately or otherwise. How many times have you heard this..."working together is the way ahead"; "collaboration", "value based leadership"...aware of all of them, understand them all...but to indicate that will solve the problems of the NHS is simply put..misleading at best, irresponsible at worst. You create the impression that it's the intransigence of some which is preventing progression of healthcare and money isn't the key factor..when it is THE factor.

As part of my travels, I see projects all around the country, some fantastic ones, which all agree with, including CCGs..but can't move due to lack of start up funds. The are some fabulous 7 day working plans..again..jammed due to lack of start-up funds. For sure, there are inefficiencies in the system..use of technology could be better, interaction could be better...but to say money isn't an issue is blatantly false, It is THE issue...the question is whether any money invested is tied in specifically to transformational work or not. Last time, the cash injection came, it got squandered. The most recent one has been about meeting targets...where's the one needed to transform services?

For all those who speak about working together, if you are in a system when one provider has a profit, do you hand it over to primary care ( where it is needed) or put it into social care budgets or do you make sure your own bottom lines are flush to make yourself look good? If this is one system, surely the budget is also one...one that should be accessible to ALL parts of the system? But it isn't...and that's what grates when I hear folks talk about working together. Working together is not about having group hugs but actually helping each other with finances...got the chutzpah to do that or are we still stuck on eloquent words?  To say 7 day services can be achieved without investment or compromising on elective care is unrealistic and let me repeat myself, promoting to many the view that's it's down to a few HCPs unwilling to work on weekends. I work in Portsmouth Hospitals and on a weekend, at any given point of time, there are, just within Medicine, 8 Consultants on the floor. You want more, you either have to get more or make sure they have time off during the weekday, which compromises the clinic, lists they would otherwise do. Why?Because that person does actually have a life outside his work and may actually like some time off. Do I hear someone say "but weekdays are so much better to have time off"? That's also the time when the kids are at school and the Consultant may actually enjoy seeing his kids...to paraphrase someone...people get ill all the time, you are a father only once for your kids.

So, I ask all such vocal evangelists to maintain some perspective and responsibility.Hinting that if you don't do weekends, you are less patient centred is a desperate attempt to send many on a guilt trip, which is fundamentally wrong.

Let me end giving you 2 perspectives. As a clinical director, we have put in place fundamentally different ways of working in diabetes within acute and community trusts...with my natural sashay of arrogance, let me add that if you haven't heard about that,then suggest you do. We also have 7 day diabetes service in place..something most trusts don't have ( yes, including some of our leaders who talk about patient care being at forefront of everything)... And let me be categorical about this...this has been done by a combination of changing culture, working differently AND INVESTMENT. In case you missed it...the word is INVESTMENT.

As a person and a doctor, let me put this perspective. I love my job, love working in my department,have always done weekends, have a supportive Executive team who "get" diabetes...bar some usual work related politics, I am passionate about improving diabetes care and am most happy seeing patients. I also believe that my patients would hopefully testify to that too.But if I am asked to choose, my family will always, and always come first. If you think that makes me a less caring doctor, then shame on you for making many dedicated doctors and nurses feel that way.
We all have responsibilities as leaders...but however well intentioned, our own evangelistic passion and vision should not consume others in that flame. That would be something we should all bear in mind.

Next week:  Life without the NHS...beyond the scaremongering...

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Picking cherries

It was always the thin end of the wedge. The day one specialty was allowed to have the option of opting out of general medicine because they were "special". Anyone worth their salt knew what was coming..and lo and behold...the leak on the dam gradually just kept getting bigger..and bigger..and inexorably we keep sliding, or even hurtling towards an inevitable conclusion.

History would suggest the cardiologists took the first plunge in spite of objections from others and that very day, whatever the reason, the camaraderie amongst physicians ended. One group was deigned to be more special than the others..they would have their own rota,their own service, their own cherry picked patients. Flip the coin and you actually see that also made sense for patients with cardiac problems, Up and down the country,many hospitals have swashbuckling cardiology units,swanky, efficient, slick..let me even use a management speak for a second..Lean. Financially it made even more sense...in a world of PbR where every single catheter gets costed and put on  a spreadsheet, the more stents you put in, the more profitable the unit became..the more the swagger of the cardiologists..they were the top dogs in town...and Frankenstein was born, the camaraderie was gone.the cherry pickers were in town.

Then one by one, they all left or are in the process of.....Rheumatologists, Dermatologists, Gastroenterologists...procedure was king, procedure meant money, procedure was sexy..a bit more IV zoledronic acid, a bit more bowel screening...Flip that coin again and you see patients have indeed benefitted from that..some absolutely remarkable departments. I personally have had amazing service from Rheumatology and can in fact see the benefits too...why spread yourself thin when you can do so much better in your specialised area? Why indeed do something else when your own specialised area lacks, you see patients suffer..because YOU are doing "something else"?

It's a tough one, isn't it? On one hand, you have the patients who don't fit into a niche, on the other hand, you want specialists doing 7 day service, helping out in the community, running their services slickly..something had to give, didn't it?And once you have precedence and indeed success, the thin end of the wedge was only just that. The success of Cardiology spawned the way for other specialists to adapt the same approach. Problem? Now we have an elderly population with multiple problems..single disease pathology doesn't exist anymore...how's that game of chess looking now?

It's also a vicious cycle..the ones who pulled out, left the others to carry the system of general medicine ..the smaller their pool became, the more disgruntled they got,torn between a desire to do the "right thing" of helping the patient without any label or triage...while mulling how to improve their specialists services.And no one is exempt from the habit of cherry picking.Acute physicians don't tend to look after patients more than 24-48 hours, rarely follow patients through on other wards...don't blame them..they have multiple fronts to fight. Some clever clog recently said at a meeting they weren't trained to look after general medicine, their training was special...the physician in me, the trainee in me who had worked through hospitals which didn't have acute units..cringed. Elderly medicine know they are getting or about to get swamped..as the age of the population increases, so everyone sets their own tramlines..age cut offs, greater than 1 morbidity,etc etc..again, no ones to blame..you are just trying to fight the tide with existing resources...make sure as the cherry pickers leave, they don't get swamped.

I have always maintained that we should have a simple rule..either all in..or all out. All in makes it equitable, all out makes it clear that we have to redefine how unscheduled care works. I have long held on to the romantic belief that the cherry pickers would be stopped and it has been lovely to see the College harbour that view...but one thing I have learnt in life...there are some battles which you need to learn to walk away from.In the battle between lets help all and lets make care for people with diabetes better, finally, specialism won.
For a system to say that a patient with a heart attack or a patient with an alcoholic liver disease is more precious or special than a patient with diabetes in ketosis is simply..wrong.  For a long time, it has been the issue of "he who shouts loudest"...but finally it is time for the white noise to stop. 20% of patients in hospital beds have diabetes..they deserve better, much better than what they are getting now..they suffer poor care partly because the specialists within the hospital have held onto an altruistic romantic notion while others have left and mock them for their naïveté. Swaths of areas in the community need better diabetes care...something which the specialists could and should support. Something had to give, didn't it?

Medicine is going one of two ways..either all will come back in and share their burden of general medicine..or hospitals will be run by acute medicine and elderly medicine, admittedly with resource- either transferred from other teams or perhaps even new investment..with specialist input along the pathway from all specialists. I suspect it's the latter...but would, be delighted to be proven wrong. Till then, we have a responsibility to improve care for people with diabetes..and I am more than happy to fight their corner every step of the way at any meeting or forum.

There will of course be some who don't agree...but it is indeed the direction of travel we all are heading towards...and much kudos to management for supporting the vision and looking ahead. As a team, we are immensely proud of the community set up we have and how that is seen by many as one for others to emulate. I have a feeling we may just done the same for working within hospitals....and could be a fundamental step to improving care for patients with diabetes admitted to hospital...for any reason..anytime of the day.  

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

All hail the leader

It's been fun recently..deliberately raising some provocative questions to see the responses but more importantly perhaps to showcase that there never is a black and white answer to anything..as ever..without any puns intended...they all are but shades of grey. However, one topic stood out..a topic which threw open all sorts of comments...the question was whether "Leadership" was now a cult,an industry and it's been fascinating to see not only the views but the folks who have contributed to it....the question has been in my head recently and it was intriguing to see so many agree.

I must admit to getting a bit confused nowadays...as everyone around me knows..I am a big fan of folks "stepping up to the plate" but recently..I genuinely can't understand any more some of the language used. Here are some terms..."Moving forward"; "Working in synergy";"distributed leadership";"empathetic vision"...and let's not forget "patient centred care". As someone commented on twitter...how many other types of care is there? Now before I get condemned to being someone who just needs to attend some courses on leadership, my question is what actually defines a leader. I have heard things like insight, determination,empathy..I have even heard that actually everyone is a leader. Well, here's a newsflash..I know plenty of professionals who actually don't want to be a leader...quote unquote.."just want to do my job well..and go home". Does that make them less of a person? Nope..I know them..and would have myself treated by them..eyes closed because they are grade A professionals. So what is leadership now? A tag? A title? Something which makes us all feel important? Is it about who shouts loudest? Or is it about someone who has shown outcomes which have improved patient care?

The explosion of social media has created a lot of keyboard leaders..a natural progression from the keyboard warriors..the ones who have an opinion about anything from Wenger's transfer policy to Obama's healthcare in 140 characters or less. And its interesting to hear them...because I don't understand some of the words used. I have been doing management for 5 years now- so the question is ..am I a leader? Well I am a member of FMLM..so am I? I work with the Kings Fund, does that make me a leader? Or is it because I have won awards and made a few lists...that makes me a leader? Or is it because I drop hints on twitter that I am bloody awesome? Or is it because as the lead of a team, we have something in place which is the envy of many? Either way, never done any leadership course or degree..so what does that make me..a freak? Someone who isn't part of the leadership cult..or does that disqualify me?

All interesting questions..but you know what? It rarely matters..as most of these leadership courses can teach you little..because most of the speakers have actually done little bar move from one post to another..with debatable improvements in patient care they have achieved. If you want to be a leader and make a difference, here's my tip..do good to the person in front of you. Start small...learn from folks, even outside the NHS, who have succeeded and see what they brought to work that made them and their team successful, delivered outcomes..and learn one simple thing about any leader you respect. They are all grey characters..persona with strengths and flaws..whether they be Churchill, Gandhi, Alex Ferguson or Shankley. Don't try to attend a course and be told to be perfect...that leaders must be pristine, have all the skills at the same time..No.if you do that, you put on a pretence which people see through. Rather find some others who complement you- and build your team. That, my friends, is what distributed leadership is about...it is about working as a jigsaw together and being accountable together.

So the next time a list comes out, look at it and think why they are there. As for me, I always ask one thing? If I am not on the list, is it because I upset someone by being forthright..as my ego and cockiness would just be surprised that  I am not there...OR if I am on the list, then is it because someone had to tick a box on ethnic backgrounds to make up the numbers and show how diverse they were? The sad bit? I am genuinely not sure any more.

Next week: The Cherry pickers of the NHS