The Future NHS and Care System – PCNs as Building Blocks

I recently wrote a blog about reimagining health and care in this apocalyptic moment. In this post, I want to put a bit more flesh on the bones of what that might actually look in the context of the NHS, here in the UK and particularly, England.

 

Let me just make a few statements about where I’m at when thinking about future health and care:

I believe in a publicly funded and provided national health and care service, paid for through fair taxation.

I believe that health and care should be available to all people, equally, regardless of ability to pay.

I believe in locally led health and care systems, embedded in local communities.

I believe prevention is better than cure and we need to get up stream and stop people falling in the river in the first place.

I believe creating great working cultures enables teams to flourish and brings out the best in people. I know right now that our health and care workforce is feeling burnt out and overwhelmed. We can’t keep working under the huge burdens of constantly changing goal posts, key performance indicators and heavily mandated targets. The wellbeing of those who work in this sector has been overlooked for too long and the stress levels caused by the sheer pace and volume of work are not acceptable.

I believe there is systemic and ingrained racism in our communities and within the NHS and even though I consider myself to be ‘woke’ about this, as a privileged, white, male, there is still so much work for me and us to do, both internally and externally in order to break the curse of white supremacy. It is simply not enough to say ‘black lives matter’ – our words are cheap unless we do not confront internalised narratives and change society together, from the inside-out through truth and action.

I believe our economic system is no longer fit for the 21st century and am so grateful for the reimagining of what economics is for.

I believe the role of government needs to radically change to be much more empowering of local communities, with appropriate frameworks to support this. We are seeing the mess of centralised control, with unchecked and wasteful investment in the private sector, rather than local community empowerment in this current Covid-19 pandemic.

I believe communities are able to self-organise phenomenally well, as we have seen throughout this pandemic and should be supported to do so more through a much more participatory and relational politics.

I believe that any health and care service should promote overall wellbeing by paying extra special attention to:

 

  • instating women fully and equally
  • prioritising children
  • advocating for the poor and breaking down health inequalities especially through challenging stigma (Very grateful to Imogen Tyler for her great work on this)
  • welcoming ‘strangers’ (by this I particularly mean the way we treat staff from overseas and how we care for refugees and asylum seekers)
  • reintegrating humanity with the environment (e.g. by getting back to basics of nutrition and sustainable food)
  • restoring justice to prisoners (metaphorical and real)
  • healing the sick – through both slow and fast medicine
  • ensure the honouring the elderly In how they are cared for

 

So……(!)……How do we take the best thinking around health and care systems and make it real and practicable in the NHS and Care System? Firstly, I suggest that we need to take the hierarchical, pyramidal system and simply flip it upside down. Let’s begin at the local level, as the foundations stones of a reimagined health and care system and build from there. With this we need to take seriously what Simon Parker is calling for in a rethink of what government exists for.

 

Within the health and care system though, we don’t another fresh reorganisation. We have some good things we can play around with. We just need to stretch our thinking a bit more and permission some creative, entrepreneurial experiments and we can see something really exciting emerge. Primary Care Networks are a good basic building block, which take the best of clinical leadership, and when done properly, combine it with local communities to build local health and wellbeing. They cause General Practice to work together more collaboratively, use the best of available data to map the issues a population are facing and have the flexibility to begin working differently. They are not perfect, and in my opinion, need some adaptation, if they are going to enable the tackling of health inequalities, social injustice and true community empowerment.

 

Firstly, they need more time. The phrase ‘at pace and scale’, used all too often in various management discussions In the health sector, is the antithesis of what the NHS needs right now. PCNs need time to build stronger relationships with their local communities, really listen to what their community are experiencing and build local solutions WITH their communities through co-design and co-creation. The constant onslaught of new targets, new measurement tools, new initiatives, all to be delivered by, well, yesterday, are completely counterproductive to the transition and revolution that community medicine needs to make. The current work load in General Practice is unsafe and unsustainable and is a byproduct of the consumerist attitude we have taken towards healthcare as a commodity. PCNs need time and will fail otherwise! This must be created for them.

 

Secondly, PCNs need to look at alternative and more sustainable models for the future. Currently, PCNs are very much built around General Practice at the core, and this makes alot of sense in many ways. However, here in Morecambe Bay, we have a building block called ‘Integrated Care Communities’ (ICCs), which pre-date PCNs by some five years. I believe we need to see a melding of the best bits of both, with a much wider and more integrated team within and around the PCN model. The traditional GP partnership model, though highly successful and desirable in so many ways, continues to build a model with the GP, primarily as the leader. I am a GP Partner myself – there are some huge benefits to such a model, especially often through great altruism and genuine community care. One of the difficulties facing primary care, as it stands though, is that few ‘future GPs’ want to become partners, preferring a ‘salaried’ approach and the issues facing primary care may, perhaps require a different kind of (and perhaps more socially just) economic model. I suggest that PCNs may want to explore the highly effective and entrepreneurial model of Social Cooperatives. Such models have proved highly successful in places like The Netherlands and New Zealand, provide greater sustainability, better collaborative working and more exciting opportunities. Drawing on the work of the economists, Spencer Thompson, Kate Raworth, Mariana Mazzucato, Katherine Trebeck (and others) I can see that a social co-operative model of PCNs, given trust and freedom to experiment, by either government or commissioners, could really remodel health and care at a local level, around genuine community need, as set out by Hilary Cottam in Radical Help. We could see the creation of locally led (and owned) community health and care services (perhaps even including care homes, who are still very poorly treated as we have seen through this crisis), creating healthy communities from pre-conception to death through asset based community development and participatory, democratic processes. A social cooperative model allows all people working together in a geography to be part of the same ‘system‘, rather than the current clumsiness of multiple ‘sovereign organisations’ tripping over each other, whilst creating similar community roles, bespoke to each employer’s whim. However, a cooperative model may not work for all organisations, like the police and fire-service (I’m happy to be convinced otherwise) and so building relationships, sharing milk and working having regular check-ins and multidisciplinary team meetings will continue to be important.

 

The possibilities at the local level are endless. PCNs would be able to prioritise a much more proactive, preventative model of health and care, employing smaller but more relational and therefore more effective and sustainable teams, embedded in local communities. They would form fantastic partnerships with local schools, co-designing a curriculum that creates positive mental and physical health, connecting young people more into their community and environment whilst being trauma-informed and compassionate in their leadership. Midwives, health visitors, social workers, community Paediatricians and mental health practitioners could form part of the core team and all work from the same geographical space with IT systems that actually talk to each other. Community care of the elderly would be more joined up, with care of the elderly physicians leading their own care of nursing home patients, supported by specialist nurse practitioners, along with, of course the incredible 3rd sector. It might be that some consultants, e.g. Rheumatologists, Dermatologists and Psychiatrists could belong to a cohort of PCNs, even employed by them, and therefore create a greater sense of belonging to a particular set of communities and they would also be able to work with communities more proactively through workshops, group consultations and education settings. Teams could flex and grow to suit the needs of a community, with the economic model set up to enable rather than constrain the flourishing of such initiatives. The social cooperatives could also form community land trusts which could begin to tackle various wider social determinants of poor health, including issues like housing, homelessness and access to green spaces. These cooperatives could ensure a living wage and persuade local businesses to get more involved in the area of health and wellbeing and even invest in the kind of initiatives that would create work in the green sector for local people. Why shouldn’t local health communities be involved in social change, when these issues affect the health of their communities so vastly?

 

I see local leadership teams (what we call Integrated Care Partnerships or ICPs), made up of PCN Directors, Local Government Officials, CVFS CEOs, The Police, Fire Service and Hospital Chiefs continuing to take the role of looking at a wider Population, made up of a group of PCNs and support them in tackling health inequalities, taking a servant leadership approach to empower them to succeed as much as possible. Primarily this group would be about permissioning, enabling, encouraging, holding space for learning and development, holding true to values and using data to facilitate excellence in practice. Relationships and trust will be the core ‘operating framework’ to enable PCNs to fully flourish.

 

The Integrated Care System (ICS) Leaders then need to take a similar approach with each ICP in their domain, giving as much power away as possible and taking a collaborative approach across a wider geography to learn from each other and encourage best practice and through the sharing of stories and success. It’s this kind of nurturing and facilitative leadership that will enable each ICP and PCN to flourish. Hospitals will naturally become more focused on acute care, and areas, like Oncolgy, as consultants become more aligned to the PCNs with which they primarily work (obviously this does not apply to all specialities, which is why an ICS can take more of an overall look at the hospital requirements for the population it serves). The role of the national NHS England and NHS Improvement teams then becomes the servant of all, the enabler and the holder of core values. Rather than a central command and control structure, it gives itself to a love-poured out model, creating cultures of joy right through the health and care system. Yes, it sets some priorities, but does so by listening to what communities around the nation are saying. So right now that would include asking PCNs to prioritise tackling systemic and ingrained racism, health inequalities and childhood trauma, in collaboration with their communities. They will take the best of international experience and learning, share that widely and reimagine the NHS as global trend-setter for how we create deep peace and wellbeing in our communities, enabling us to become good ancestors of the future. A radical, revolutionary but entirely practical refocusing of the NHS and Care System from the bottom-up is entirely possible. There is almost no remodelling needed, simply a change in focus and culture. It requires PCNs and the communities they serve to get on an do it together, disregarding that which prevents them. If they do this, they will find that everything they need will follow them and their light will shine brightly.

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Should The Schools Go Back on June 1st?

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Is the decision to send some of our children back to school on June 1st the right one? What are the factors that have been considered and how has the decision been made? I”ve been asked these questions a number of times and they bother me at several levels. They bother me as a Dad (and believe me I have an even deeper respect for teachers and the magic they do every day!), as a GP, as a School Governor of a Primary School, as a Trustee of a Multi-Academy Trust, as a Co-Author of a book about Adverse Childhood Experiences and as a local leader in the NHS as Director of Population Health in Morecambe Bay. So, I come to the questions with several different hats on and feeling conflicted in how I think about the issues involved. To be absolutely clear, this blog is written from a personal perspective and I am not writing in any of my official capacities, as with any blog on this site. I was having a conversation the other day with a friend of mine, who spent years working as a solicitor. We were talking about judicial reviews and the probity of any given decision. The vital test is this: has everything been taken into account that should have been; has anything been taken into account that shouldn’t have been? In other words, it’s not about the decision but about HOW the decision is arrived at. If the test is satisfied, it’s a good decision.

 

Firstly, I want to focus on the process of decision making. Over the last few years, working with the Poverty Truth Commission and using the ‘Art of Hosting’ as a framework for how to encourage wider participation, I have been greatly impacted in how I think about this process. In the PTC we follow the basic principle that ‘no decision about me, without me, is for me’. When the government made the decision to open schools more widely on June 1st, did they talk to the unions first? Did they discuss the ideas, concerns and expectations of many teachers prior to their announcement? Was there any discussion with children or young people about what they might feel about returning to school and what their priorities might be? Was there even an announcement to the house of commons so that the idea could be debated and discussed before deciding on the June 1st date? I think the answer to each of those questions is ‘no’. So, in terms of probity, it seems impossible to say this is a good decision without having taken into account such vital opinions and voices. I absolutely recognise that being in government at such a time is no easy task. If the government, here in the UK, continue to act without involving wider participation and conversation, it is less likely, especially at a time of such national anxiety and uncertainty, that they will be able to take the public with them. We need the government to choose to be listening, inclusive and honest about the complexity of the issues involved. If they do this, they will find national collaboration much easier to achieve.

 

Secondly, we keep being told by the government that we are being “guided by the science”. This statement alone poses so many questions! When Sir Jeremy Farrar, (watch from 10:30) CEO of The Wellcome Trust, and member of SAGE was humble enough to admit last week that it was a mistake not to have been far more on the front foot with testing and contact tracing here in the UK, something which has been shown to have an extraordinary benefit in Kerala, South Korea, Taiwan, Iceland and Germany (as just five examples – there are plenty of others from Africa and Oceana also), it felt like there was a collective sigh of relief across the country. Finally, someone actually publicly stated that things have gone wrong. Since that time Prof Tim Spector has warned us that because the UK has been listing only a limited number of possible Covid-19 symptoms, there are probably between 50000 and 70000 people who currently have the disease and are not self-isolating. He, along with Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Jonathan Van Tam have both also insinuated that the ‘tried and tested’ method of physical contact tracing through local public health teams is much more trustworthy than a centralised app-based model. Without this, the ‘R’ number is very limited in it’s ability to predict much at all, as we’re really in the terriotry of good guess work, rather than more real time data which we can interrogate and probe more thoroughly. The danger with this approach therefore is that we are 3-4 weeks behind with the actual numbers and looking at death rates doesn’t necessarily help us much either when considering the rate of spread. To make matters more complex, the (inaccurate) R number has significant regional variation, which again makes the case for more locally led and connected decision making. Furthermore, the UK Pariliament’s Science and Technology Committee, chaired by the Rt Hon Greg Clark MP have detailed ten significant findings and concerns with recommendations attached, whilst recognising the complexities involved. Of particular note, we’ve had 10 weeks in which woefully insufficient testing, contact tracing and isolation has been the reality. Today, the WHO reported the largest number of new cases of Covid-19, worldwide. With our airports still open and an increase in travel emerging, we put ourselves at major risk of an early second wave, especially if we do not have the necessary systems in place to prevent this. Boris Johnson is still adamant that things are steaming ahead nicely but other government ministers say their new track and trace system will not be ready for roll out on June 1st. This is different to having a fully operational system in place. There are questions that still demand answers! Many expert voices are calling for a much more locally driven, joined up approach, led by our brilliant Directors of Public Health, supported by joined up working across the public sector and supported by General Practice. There are plenty of voices asking us to pause and think again.

 

Thirdly, we need to know if it safe for children to go back to school? The government are confident and clear that it is. It is interesting, however, that allegedly every member of the current cabinet sends their children to private schools, none of which will be opening until September. The answer to this question is not straightforward and there are several things to consider and we should be honest about that.  Are children likely to become unwell from Covid-19, if they have no underlying health conditions? No – they are very likely to only suffer very mild symptoms, though there are some concerns regarding some children having rare sudden respiratory symptoms. But what about the impact on those who will need to continue to be isolated at home? Can children have the virus without showing symptoms? Yes. Can they therefore be spreaders of C-19? Yes they can, and because we have not been doing effective testing, contact tracing and isolation, this could be problematic. If the government’s testing and contract tracing system, run by Deloitte’s and supported by the national app is up and running by early June, will this make it safer? Probably, but there is great cynicism in the world of Public Health that this approach is desirable. As stated above, the tried and tested model of this all being run by the Directors of Public Health and their teams in each geography, supported by local GPs is deemed to be much more effective. Local knowledge and guidance would, I believe, give local teachers much more confidence with more readily available advice where needed. Should staff be wearing face masks? There is varying advice on this. Our local authority currently says no, but Prof Trish Greenhalgh from Oxford University advises that they should, on the basis that face masks reduce the spread of C19 and can perhaps offer some protection for the wearer also.

 

What are the risks of not opening the schools? Well, we know that 10% of all children in the UK (and this is not dependent on social class, so kids at private schools are at just as much risk) are likely to be suffering from 4 Adverse Childhood Experiences. The impact of this kind of trauma on them can be absolutely huge in the long term and schools and key relationships with teachers/TAs can be significantly protective factors. Schools also play a very important role in tackling food poverty and ensuring many children get 2 or even 3 good meals. So Steve Chalke is right that not opening schools could appear like a middle-class luxury. But will putting kids who need security and love, into an alien situation with facemarks, social distancing and a very different kind of day to usual, actually compound the sense of trauma? We don’t know yet, but we will need to watch this carefully, if and when the schools do go back. Perhaps headteachers could prioritise those children most at risk, over the 4 and 5 year olds, who it will be very hard to keep socially distanced. What I will say though, is that headteachers are not the ‘bad guys’ here. I don’t know one headteacher who doesn’t want anything except the best for the children in their school and genuinely wants to be able to have them back.

 

Without effective or sufficient testing and contact tracing, we do put ourselves at risk of an early second peak. This is a risk – are we prepared to take it in the face of what we know about the rise in domestic violence, childhood trauma and growing mental health issues? Will 6 weeks back at school before the summer really be worth it? Should we mitigate the risk by not opening and ensure that we are more sure of the necessary processes being in place first? The decision ultimately belongs with each head teacher with support from their governing body, as to whether or not to open on June 1st. It is dependent on what is practicable in their given location and with the staff and facilities they have at their disposal. The government guidance is difficult to implement in many settings. So let us be kind to each other. Let’s be honest about where we are and just how complex this is. For those who want to dip their toe in and give it a go, we must ensure that guidance is followed as closely as possible, especially hand washing, cleaning of surfaces and physical distancing, where practical. For those who decide to wait, fair enough. But whatever happens, let us be determined to build an education system that is fit for the future. Let us rebuild education based on love and kindness and let’s be brave enough to redesign the curriculum around the needs of humanity and the ecology.

 

So, in summary:

 

  • These are my own opinions
  • Is it safe for children and teachers to go back to school? Possibly, but without satisfactory testing, contact tracing and isolation in place and with growing evidence that this will not be adequate by June 1st and with an inaccurate R number due to an incomplete list of symptoms for testing people, there is a risk to the wider public that we could enter an early second peak. It would be prudent for the government to seriously reconsider their centralised approach to this, when empowering local government and public health teams to lead this process will be far more effective. It may be safe for children to begin to return to school (I think), but maybe not for wider society.
  • At what point then, would it be safe for schools to reopen? Perhaps once we are more sure that the protective public health systems we need to be fully operational are in place and running effectively. But we do need to return to school soon, so we need to find a way through – that way is unlikely to come through centralised command and control but will rather require a participatory and inclusive approach. So the answer is maybe but maybe not quite yet – better to get it right than to risk getting it horribly wrong by rushing it.
  • If schools choose to reopen, due to the concerns about issues like trauma, mental health and hunger, what are the issues they need to consider? The current government advice on social distancing is impractical and schools may need to look for community partners, who may be willing to help with other local premises (e.g. churches, mosques and local halls) to enable this to be possible. They will also need to ensure good hand washing, cleaning of surfaces and consider what they want to do about face masks AND we need to re-emphasise this advice to the wider public. Schools will also need to think about how they staff the recommended ‘bubbles’ and whether or not they will need community DBS-checked volunteers to help out. On top of this they will need to consider who they initially prioritise how they support the emotional and mental health of our children, young people and staff in a very different kind of setting. And they will need to remain inclusive of those children and young-people who cannot return to school due to having underlying health conditions themselves or in their households.
  • Whatever happens, let’s ensure a more participatory and inclusive conversation about the path ahead of us. Schools need to be involved in the process.
  • Let us also have a wider conversation about the kind of education system we need for the future. Lots of good thinking on this already across the UK and some podcasts coming soon.

 

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