On the 14th April 2003 biomedical scientists achieved the medical equivalent of the 1969 apollo moon landings – The first entire gene sequence of a human was published.  This was a phenomenal achievement and was the culmination of 12 years of intensive research – it was announced by the US President with great fanfare along with excited promsises of revolutionary advances in medicine.  We all waited with anticipation – and we waited.  Rather like the dawning of the space age – that first momentous step seemed to be followed by a quite a prolonged period of rather disappointingly mundane achievements (where are the moon colonies, hotels on mars?).  My entire medical school training and early career was filled with promises of the genetic age of medicine.  And whilst without doubt the technology of genetics has transformed our understanding of disease and created many therapeutic opportunities – the revoloution seems to have been largely confined to the laboratory and some very rare inherited genetic disorders.  The impact on most doctors (and patients) has been marginal to non-existent.  I do believe this is about to change though.

The First Two Ages of Modern Medicine

I am defining modern medicine as the era in which it becam possible ‘to do’ something to alter the course of disease and suffering.  It largely coincides with the medical profession’s mastery of pain and conciousness – allowing for the explosive development of modern surgery, and its mastery of infection – through vaccination, asepsis and antibiotics.  These triumphs of the late 19th and early 20th century brought about a rather (possibly justifiably) hubristic ‘doctor knows best’ attitude of the profession and a transformation from cynicism (just read the literature to find out what the victorians thought of their doctors!) to profound trust of society in the capabilities of the profession.  I will call the first age of modern medicine the ‘Paternalistic Age’.  Of course we eventually discovered that doctors don’t always know best, and that when confered with unreasonable trust – like all humans – doctors sometimes betray that trust.

The second age came about with the realisation that individual experts do not have privileged access to knowledge – and that true knowledge comes about through scrupulous collection of evidence, and when that process is bypassed serious harm can result.  This is best exemplified (but not exclusively) by the Thalidomide tragedy.  Another example of the consequences of unchecked, unjustifiable trust would be Harold Shipman.  Whilst the foundations of trust in the profession have not been completely undermined – there is now a healthy wariness of the claims of the profession.  The second era of modern medicine is the one I have been brought up in – it is perhaps best described as the ‘Evidence Based Age’.  It has been characterised by the ‘standardisation’ of medical care, the medicalisation of health (primary prevention – statins), increasing specialisation and a subtle shift in the powerbase in the consulting room to one of patient as consumer of medical care and doctor as informant and provider.  It has also been characterised by an proliferation of regulation as well as litigation and the practice of defensive medicine.

The two ages overlap of course – by a considerable margin – even as the third age dawns there are still doctors with unfounded self belief and patients that simply submit themselves unquestioningly to their fate at the hands of the profession.  It is also not entirely certain that the second age is always an improvement on the first.  We struggle with ‘evidence’ – it seems to change its mind, and our method of gathering it is expensive, laborious and many of the problems we need solving don’t seem to be amenable to the standard methods of evidence gathering.  This has resulted in the evidence being biased significantly towards therapeutic intervention with drugs – because that is where the evidence gathering resource lies.  We are over regulated – to an opressive degree – and we have managed to instil in our patients both very high expectation and complete dependence.  We are also conflicted – when the evidence (that we sometimes doubt) tells us one thing, our instinct tells us another and our patients have unreasonably  high expectations for something else – it can feel like we don’t have the license to do the right thing.  We end up bewildering our patients by showering them with evidence, risks and benefits – and then saying ‘over to you’ knowing full well that our patients are ill equipped to decide.

There must be a better way – and there is – but it requires the confluence of three revolutions to bring it about.

Three Revolutions

The first of these is one I have written about extenisvely – it is the information revolution as it applies to medicine and healthcare.  The revolution in gathering, processing, decision making and redistribution of medical information is just about getting under way.  However it has not even started to realise its full potential yet.

The second revolution is one I have also previously alluded to – which is the patient empowerment revolution – also just about getting underway if a little slowly.  This not just places the patient at the centre of care, it places them as master of their destiny through empowerment and education.  The medical professional task is primarily one of teaching self care backed up by judicious, co-comissioned intervention.

The third revolution I haven’t written about before – mainly because I have only really just learnt about it.    Whilst I have possibly been dimly aware of the concept of genomics – the reality of it has emerged into my conciousness in the last month as a result of two events.  The first of these was our very own consultant conference at which we were introduced to the launch of the 100,000 genome project.  The second – allied to this – was a meeting at the Institute of Translational Medicine in Birmingham where we were helping NHS England formulate a strategy for ‘Personalised Medicine’.

The Genetic Revolution Begins

So has it finally arrived – the age of genetic medicine – that I was promised as a medical student (blah years ago)?  Well not quite – and of course I don’t think that the third age of modern medicine is the genetic age that was promised.  However genetics – or more specifically Genomics – does form the third pillar of the dawning of our new age.

Returning to our space age metaphor – the 100,000 Gemone Project is the equivalent to the first manned mission to Mars.  The 100,000 people that enter the project are the equivalent to the 200,000 volunteers that have put themselves forward for that mission.  Notwithstanding that we don’t know who they are yet – they will be the pioneers of the third age of modern medicine.  They don’t quite know what they are letting themselves in for, or where in fact they are going.  What is certain is that the journey is most definately one way.

The first human genome sequence cost the US taxpayer $3 billion and took 12 years – technology has advanced somewhat since then and it now costs less than £300 and takes a couple of hours.  Thats little more than the cost of an MRI scan.  You can buy your genome sequence online – don’t ask your doctor what the result means though, they won’t know.  In fact you would be hard pressed to find anyone that can interpret the vast amount of information that is your genome.  This is where the 100,000 genome project comes in – the aim of the project is to give all that information some sort of meaning.

We are more than our genes – we are the manifestation of our genes but with a context and a history.  It is the interaction of our genes with the environment over a sustained period of time – plus the impact of pathologies and the attrition of time on our DNA that makes ‘us’.  A genetic sequence has no meaning until it is interpreted in that context.  The true power of genomics will be realised when we know how people ‘like us’ respond to environmental, therapeutic and pathological influences and the impact that genetic variance has on that.  To achieve that we have to ‘cross reference’ the vast data base that is the genome with an equally vast database that is the ‘phenome’ i.e. everything else.

The 100,000 genome project will start with recruiting people with conditions for which we know there is a genetic component either of the disease itself or the response to currently available treatments – this includes a variety of cancers and a (quite long) list of other rare diseases.  It will collect the ‘phenotype’ of these people i.e. comprehensive and structured information about individuals, their history the environment in which they grew up and live, their response to treatment and their outcomes.  It will probably do the same for their families.  It will process huge amounts of data – and it may not even directly benefit our 100,000 pioneers – much of the significance  of this information will only become clear after time and many more individuals have been recruited.  

This is a new paradigm in bio-medical research – it is the science of ‘discovery’ rather than the more familiar cycle of hypothesis testing through randomised control trial.  It imposes a discipline on the way we practice medicine – in particular the way we collect information.  It makes every health transaction an evidence creating one.  It is a model of continuous learning.  What is really exciting is that it is happening right here in the diverse, metropolitan beating heart of the country – Birmingham.

Where will it end?  From what I can see it certainly won’t end at the 100,oooth patient.  It is quite a long way to Mars…

Interpreting the Future

So the third age – is it the ‘Genomic Age’? No – although I believe the aims and design of the 100,000 genome project epitomise third age medicine.  I am going to call the third age of modern medicine the ‘Interpretive Age’.  By this I mean the future of medicine will be personal.  We will need doctors that can interpret the large amounts of information from genomics, phenomics, proteomics, theranomics and infonomics (only the last one is my invention) relating to individual patients and interpret them in a way that has meaning for the patient – and that starts with listening to the patient and understanding their context, their wants needs and aspirations (psychonomics? socionomics?).

In many ways good doctors already do this.  Are the GPs that don’t give statins to patients with a 10% risk of heart disease in the next 10 years (see Times Thursday 29th October 2015) – denying patients best evidence based care or are they practising personalised medicine?  Is it right to call someone only at risk of disease a patient?  Genomics is really simply another tool that gives an unheralded level of precision to the decision making we can make with our patients for what is best for them.  There are many tools in that box – some of them listed above – are we equipped to use them though?  I am certain that when we have have ‘precision personalised medicine’ brought about through detailed interpretation of genetic, therpeutic, informatic data, we won’t be giving 3.5 million healthy people statins.

Are you an ‘Interpretive Doctor’?
  

For as long as there has been healthcare we have struggled with developing economic models for its delivery. The variety of models that exist across the world – from the raw market seen in many developing countries; through various degrees of private / state sponsored insurance; to the pure state funded provision we enjoy in the NHS – attest to the fact that there is no ‘right answer’ to this conundrum.

The Funding Paradox of Healthcare

Most healthcare systems in one way or another attempt to resolve the inevitable paradox that in the majority of cases those in most need of healthcare are also the least likely to be able to pay for it. As a result most systems are a manifestation of a ‘collective bond’ between society and the individual – ‘We’ will pay for your healthcare when you need it as long as ‘you’ contribute what you can when you don’t.

Different systems manifest the bond in different way – Through direct taxation, private or state subsidised insurance. Even the least developed systems, that rely on direct payments for care have a degree of economic re-distribution built into them, with wealthier clients overpaying to subsidise the poor and charitable donations making up the difference.

Does the funding mechanism affect the amount of money the ‘collective’ is prepared to spend on healthcare? Interestingly it appears not to be the case – the biggest determinant on how much is spent is the wealth of nation, but the relationship is geometric one i.e. the wealthier a nation the greater the proportion of GDP is spent on healthcare. The graph looks like this:

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Justice and Equity

Where systems do differ significantly is ‘in what way’ and ‘on whom’ the money is spent. The lesson from international healthcare system comparisons is that, in general, the greater the involvement of the state the better are the measures of ‘Universality’ i.e. distributive justice and equality of access.

Universality is not the only outcome we want to achieve from our healthcare funding system though – there is no point in having universal access to a system that is no good. Universality is ultimately, like funding model, a policy decision. It is a decision by the collective on how it would like to distribute the healthcare funds it has decided it can afford – both are the product of culture, politics, history and national character. But neither universality nor funding model alone determine health outcomes. Changing either of these is unlikely to improve the quality of care or the cost of its provision.

Is the NHS Any Good?

So, the NHS is funded to the level we would expect for the size and wealth of the nation – it scores pretty well (one of the best) on universality, although we lose points because we do tend to ration care by putting people into queues (but that is part of our national character). How do we know if we are getting the healthcare we are paying for? How do we know if the NHS is Good Value? To answer this question we have to understand the notion of value in healthcare.

Value is a fundamental function of any free market economy – it is an equation all of us reconcile, either consciously or unconsciously, every time we part with money for goods or services. We all make a calculation as to whether a particular good or service is ‘worth’ the amount of money we are about to part with. The solution to the value equation is always a very personal one – it varies enormously between individuals and even within the same individual at different times and in different contexts (most of us are prepared to pay more for a glass of wine to accompany a meal in a restaurant than we are for one when watching TV at home). Value drives market economics – it drives quality up and costs down – it improves quality of life and increases wealth – it is the triumph of market capitalism. But – it only works as long as the reconciliation of value (Worth/Cost) takes place within the same individual or entity. You cannot reconcile value if you are spending someone else’s money.

Let me tell a story to illustrate the point…

A Bitter-Sweet Motoring Tale

Just over two years ago I finally got around to replacing our family car after 8 years of neglecting the task. Having not thought about it in all that time I was for a period gripped by a frenzied interest in the family car market. After browsing the internet, buying the magazines, and even stepping into a car show room for the odd test drive – I ultimately had to come to a decision between 3 car types (having already decided that I wanted a medium sized family estate). These types are essentially ‘Low-End’ (cheap and cheerful e.g. Citroen, Seat, Fiat), ‘Mid-Range’ (Popular Reliable e.g. Ford, VW, Skoda) and ‘High-End’ (Designer, Classy, Expensive e.g. BMW, Audi, Lexus). In terms of cost low-end were in the range £12K – £15K, mid-range approximately £5K more than that and high-end another £10K on top of that and in excess of twice the cost of low-end. Having previously experienced the catastrophic residual value loss associated with the low-end of the market and been persuaded (conscience and wife in equal measure) that I couldn’t afford to go down the high-end route I settled (like many do) for a mid-range model and became the proud owner of a Skoda Octavia Estate. My personal ‘value journey’ has resulted in a car I am delighted with at no more cost than I was prepared to spend, and I am pleased to say the residual seems to be holding up nicely! My delight has only been tempered by the extraordinary hike in the cost of insuring it compared to the old car…

I was, unfortunately, involved in a car accident not so long ago – no one injured thankfully – but the car was off the road for several weeks. My positive motoring experience continued though – the insurance company appeared eager to help me out, arranging immediate retrieval of the vehicle, replacement with a hire car personally delivered to my front door, insistence that I put forward any personal injury claim (there was none). My car was returned to me weeks later in an immaculate condition having undergone repairs approaching half the cost of the original purchase price. The whole ‘accident experience’ was really no inconvenience to me at all, and I am told that the quality of repairs these days means that it will have no impact on residual value either. All great – but at what cost?

The car insurance market in recent years has undergone phenomenal price inflation – at times exceeding background inflation by a factor of ten. The introduction of ‘claims management companies’ ‘Personal injuries claim farmers’ ‘Professional body shop repairers’ ‘Replacement car hire’ etc. – have inflated the cost of motoring accidents massively. Everyone involved in the car accident ‘value chain’ appears to to be exceptionally eager to please and also appear to be profiting handsomely – in fact the whole trade was recently investigated by the OFT for profiteering. How has this runaway inflation been allowed to happen? It is a consequence of the fact that the value equation has become ‘de-coupled’ – whilst benefit is experienced by the individual the cost is shared out amongst the pool of the insured. I have contributed a small amount to overall inflation in the cost of insuring cars against accidents – had I been paying directly for the consequences of my accident would I have chosen such a high cost route to resolution? The fact is the system is locked into an inevitable inflationary spiral as no-one is controlling costs.

The market in new cars is a healthy market – it has delivered incredible improvements in the quality of cars over many years and at the same time kept costs down – the value equation is always resolved by the purchaser. The car insurance market is broken – delivering runaway inflation and ever diminishing value.

Delivering Value in Health

I am sure you will have realised that I believe that healthcare ‘markets’ share more in common with car insurance than they do with car manufacturing. That is why marketisation of healthcare has failed to deliver value.

The value equation in healthcare is on the face of it simple but is nuanced and complex – it looks like this:

VALUE = (Quality + Outcome) / True Cost of Delivery

The equation is reconciled rather uneasily within the ‘triumvirate’ of Patient, Provider and Payer. The providers are profiting (in this context by profiting I mean existing) from being fragmented, with no incentive to prevent costs being passed along the ‘value chain’, and plenty of incentive to do more at more cost to the payers. The patient experiences the quality and the outcome (often at some significant distance in time from the transaction) but has no notion of the cost. The payers are faced with irreconcilable demands for increasing scope and quality, limited levers of control of costs and under-developed measures of quality and outcome. All of this fuelled by the easy altruism of the providers spending someone else’s money.

Marketising Integrated Care

How can we yield the incredible power of a well functioning market to deliver increasing quality at reducing cost but not at the same time create a runaway self inflating market? Where in the system can we bring together the quality and outcome (as experienced by the patient) with the true cost of delivery (as experienced by the payer) in order to create value?

The answer, ironically enough, is coming from the US healthcare system. This has experienced the kind of runaway inflation described above and led it to becoming the most expensive healthcare system that has ever existed delivering aggregated health outcomes little better than systems costing less than a quarter per head of population. Yet the payers (in this case private insurers) have spotted the flaws in the market – the fundamentally self inflating structures of healthcare that incentivise primary care to refer, secondary care to receive and over diagnose problems for which they profit from treating. Their solution has been for the payers to move into the provider space – creating integrated healthcare systems. In doing so they have incentivised ‘doing less earlier for a better outcome’ – incentivised prevention, incentivised early accurate diagnosis, incentivised the creation of ‘activated patients’ and incentivised best value treatment. ‘Payer-Provider’ healthcare systems in the US such as Kaiser Permanente, Veterans Affairs and others are profiting from integrated care. They are deconstructing traditional silos and re-building delivery systems organised around whole value-chains – delivering end-to-end care for dramatically less cost. The market is moving from a market of healthcare providers to a market in integrated care organisations – providing whole life cycle care.

Time for a New NHS?

We want a better value NHS – one that delivers more and higher quality care for the same or less cost. This is a reasonable objective. We won’t achieve it by meddling with funding model or universality – these are predetermined and would require a re-negotiation of the collective bond, and would not deliver better value. We won’t achieve it by fragmenting the provider market – that will create a runaway self inflating system of passing the cost up the value chain. We might achieve it by integrating providers around whole cycles of care. We have been talking about integration in various guises for years but have delivered little as we remain in a purchaser provider split and a primary secondary split all locked in self preserving stalemate. What has been missing is the incentive to integrate and that comes from integrating payers and providers. This is for the NHS the slightly awkward lesson coming to us from over the Atlantic.

As a medical director I am routinely required to assess, grade and act on the results of serious adverse events that have occurred in hospital. Often these events have resulted from failures of care through lapses, oversights, errors or neglect. This is often accompanied by a clarion call for some form of disciplinary action and or restitution – usually most insistently from within the organisation rather than by those directly affected, either carers or the patients themselves.

Bad things happen in hospital all the time. Healthcare is the only industry where for a significant minority of users the outcome is death or injury, either expected or unexpected. The overwhelming priority in this situation for both the recipients and providers of the care is learning: learning the truth of events, learning if it was avoidable, learning how it might be avoided in the future, and sharing that learning so it might be avoided elsewhere.

Prerequisites for Organisational Learning

We have, as human beings, an innate gift for learning – it is built into our DNA and, whilst most active in our early years of life, never really leaves us. Individual learning is the most powerful lever of change in human societies, because people love to learn and change as a result. Teams and organisations are made up of people and yet team and organisational learning does not happen by chance as it does for individuals – team learning is an unnatural and deliberate act.

There are three prerequisites needed within organisations in order to promote learning from error and system failure. It is strangely rare to find them all reliably present in healthcare organisations.

  • A Learning Environment
  • A Team Based Learning Infrastructure
  • A Compelling Vision Delivered Through Leadership
  • I will expand on these three prerequisites, but first I want to explore why they are found rarely in our hospitals and healthcare organisations.

    Two Key Barriers to Organisational Learning in Hospitals

    Hospitals are busy places, this is a universal truth – not unique to the NHS. The work processes of nurses and doctors in hospitals rarely run smoothly – they are by their nature characterised by frequent interruptions, unexpected deviations and minor crises. In order to get the job done a large part of the work involves having to create on-the-hoof workarounds and solutions to problems – giving rise to the familiar sense of almost continuous ‘fire fighting’.
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    We are actually incredibly successful at doing this, much of our individual innate learning capacity is consumed developing coping strategies for the chaotic environment we find ourselves in. The problem with this ‘first order problem solving’ for ‘low level failure’ is that the learning it generates is of value only to the individual nurse or doctor – they are simply adapting to the flawed environment they find themselves in – just to get the job done. In doing so they are condemning themselves and and their successors to having to learn the same lessons in perpetuity – this grinds you down and drives talent away from ‘the front line’. How do we break the cycle of low level failure that requires constant first order problem solving making every day work flow inefficient and time consuming? The first step is to recognise the problem and then acknowledge that low level failure, whilst common place, is neither inevitable nor acceptable. The next step is to then deliberately and collectively make the time to move first order problem solving into second order problem solving (of which more later).

    The second key barrier to organisational learning in hospitals is a deeper, more cultural one. This is to do with interpersonal attitudes and responses to error. The shameful truth is that the overwhelmingly pervasive culture is a blaming one that inhibits speaking up with questions, concerns and challenges that might otherwise have caught and corrected human error. Moreover there is a culture in medicine that does not encourage admissions of error. Both ourselves and others have high expectations of success in medicine – when we don’t meet those expectations we are as blaming of ourselves as we might expect others to be. What is interesting is that the direction of blame isn’t just top down – in fact top down blame only really materialises when the failures mount up to catastrophic levels. The vast majority of, and undoubtedly more corrosive, blame is that of our colleagues and peers. What is clear is that whilst blame remains the primary response to failure opportunities for learning will be lost and the quality of the lessons learnt will be poor. Overcoming this barrier is a true challenge of leadership at all levels of an organisation as it requires a change in culture – a clear and sustained statement and restatement of values, unwavering adherence to behaviours that follow from those values, even in the face of challenges from within and without the organisation.

    Leading Learning for Patient Safety

    So where should we start with creating a learning culture in our organisations? The answer has to be with leadership, because without leadership on this issue nothing else can follow. The type of leadership and skills required to lead learning, however, are not what are typically viewed as traditional leadership skills. The leadership model for leading learning differs from the traditional leadership model in several important ways:

  • Whilst a ‘burning platform’ undoubtedly exists, the future state can only be guessed at (in an educated way)
  • This makes it hard to articulate
  • The flaws in the current state are hard to spot – there is a deep seated culture of acceptance of low level failure
  • The way forward is not a clear plan with deadlines and critical paths but a process of experimentation, a gradual reduction of uncertainty and regular revision of interim goals and ultimate vision
  • The leadership task is primarily one of engagement and reduction of fear not a promotion of employee effort
  • The task will never be finished
  • If you have read my previous blogs you might guess that I believe these ‘New Model Leaders’ need to come from the rank and file of doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals that don’t often put themselves forward for such a role.

    Second Order Problem Solving and A Team Based Learning Infrastructure

    Second order problem solving is about creating long term fixes for recurrent problems, it is about analysing root causes and putting in place solutions with ‘traction’, it is often about changing behaviours in ourselves that have consequences for others. There are several reasons why we don’t stop and take the time and effort required to convert first order to second order problem solving. First of all – it does take both time and effort – neither of which we have much left of after a day / week / month / years of fire fighting. Secondly the problems we need to solve are quite often not even perceived as problems, we have been compensating for so long it has just become part of the job – this is where our new model leader has to be insightful. Thirdly second order problem solving requires some quite specific skills such as root cause analysis, process mapping, and change modelling that are not commonly found in healthcare teams. Fourthly – we are quite proud of our first order problem solving, being a coper and thriver in a stressful front line job is associated with significant kudos, particularly in the hospital environment. Finally it does require us to meet as teams for a significant time on a regular basis – which we are astonishingly bad at doing – and when we do for those team meetings to be led in a way that promotes speaking up, learning from others, admissions of failure and a willingness to innovate (and therefore risk failure). This final requirement leads on to the the final pre-requisite for organisational learning – an environment of psychological safety – A Learning Environment

    Blame Free Culture Vs Accountability – A Balance that Creates ‘Psychological Safety’

    Our new model leaders have their work cut out – not only do they have to create time (in an already overloaded time table) to bring together teams (who are singularly reluctant to gather) to discuss both low level and high level failure (failures that may not even be recognised as such) and defend these notions against pressures to use the time ‘more productively’; but also resist the temptation and pressures from above, inside and out to apportion blame for every failure that comes to light. The prize is great if they achieve it – a learning environment in an organisation that continually improves both itself and the people that move through it, one that delivers both on the economic and quality front. A true value adding organisation.

    But – it can’t all be so idyllic surely? People do also make mistakes borne out of stupidity, brazen over confidence, ignorance, stubbornness, laziness, jealousy and – yes – even malice. There is a level of human behaviour for which we all need to be held account. There is also a performance imperative, we all have to be helped to raise our game. Where is the place for accountability in a blame free culture? The diagram below will perhaps help you decide…

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    This is the essential difference between ‘blame free’ and ‘psychologically safe’ for the latter comes not just from creating an environment where people feel able to speak up and admit failure but also feel assured that when boundaries are truly crossed that individuals will be held to account. This is the real test of leadership – knowing and communicating expectations and boundaries as well.

    Blameworthy Acts – the Boundaries of a Blame Free Culture

    Where do you draw the boundaries? There are no text books, there are no rules – there is intuition and there are inspirational leaders we can follow. Here is my starter for ten of blameworthy acts:

  • Reckless behaviour
  • Disruptive behaviour
  • Working significantly outside your capability
  • Disrespectful behaviour
  • Knowingly violating standards
  • Failure to learn over time
  • Failure to work as a team
  • Covering up
  • No doubt there are more. Clear boundaries around a learning zone create an environment in which organisations can thrive and patients can feel and be safe.

    I have to acknowledge the source of the ideas for this article. Amy C Edmonson – a truly inspirational teacher at HBS who not only articulates this message with conviction but backs it up with the irrefutable results of research both in healthcare and other settings.

    There is a solution to all the problems in healthcare – it is a simple one, it has a successful track record in many high risk industries and it is one that is acceptable to all stakeholders in the health transaction – Professionals, Patients, Payers, Politicians and Managers. It also saves money – lots of it…

    The solution has been called different things in different industries, it has been adopted in various styles at different points in history by these different industries – but is essentially the same thing. Health is probably the last high risk industry to adopt this solution and is doing so rather slowly, grudgingly if at all – for one simple reason: The harm that healthcare causes does not affect either the payers or the providers of the service.

    The airline industry was an early adopter – because it discovered pretty quickly that not adopting it would be fatal to themselves and their customers. There was also pretty effective self selection of non-adopters as heroic, buccaneering individuals and organisations literally crashed and burned. The oil and gas industry followed somewhat later when they discovered that adopting it made them money – lots and lots of it – with safety being a welcome side effect.

    The solution has created a world where it is safer to fly than it is to drive to the airport. Where more people are killed by petrol in their own garages than in the entire global petrochemical processing industry. Where we enjoy astonishing improvements in quality, safety and utility of the products we consume at either the same or diminishing cost (think of the mobile phone you use now compared to ten years ago).

    The solution is a culture, a state of mind and a way of doing things – it is a committed, system wide and systematic approach to reliability.

    The commonest argument used against the proposal to adopt a reliable approach to delivering healthcare goes along the lines of – ‘Patients are not widgets’; ‘Jumbo jets are more reliable than patients’; ‘There is so much uncertainty in medicine’; ‘This constrains my freedom of practice’ etc. Blaming patients for unreliable healthcare is, however, a highly disingenuous argument. Patients are unreliable, they do present us with enormous problems of variance and deviance from the expected, medicine is difficult – but that is their nature, that is their right. Putting them into an unreliable healthcare system produces variance on variance – which, I have said before, is the definition of chaos. Unreliable healthcare results in unsafe medicine, uncertain and poor outcomes, errors that are destined to be repeated (like history) all of which, not withstanding the human misery, costs. It has been estimated that nearly half of all health care costs are related to failures in the delivery of care.

    What is Reliable Healthcare Delivery?

    The trite (and not very helpful) answer to this question is the familiar ‘Doing the right thing and doing things right’. This particular definition ignores the rather large zone of uncertainty that exists between what we know is the right thing and what we know is the wrong thing. If we were to pause and reflect on the state of medical knowledge and draw a diagram representing each of these three zones – what we know is right (white), what we know is wrong (black), where there is room for argument (grey) – how big would we draw each of the zones? What strategies would a reliable healthcare delivery system adopt in the three different knowledge zones?

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    The White Zone – Doing the right thing the right way

    The truth of the matter is we have a huge amount of medical knowledge – there are very many areas of medicine where we know what the right thing to do is and how best to do it. The medical knowledge base is vast and increasing exponentially (see graph below) and there are swathes of medicine where the important unanswered question is not ‘What is the right thing to do?’ but ‘Why (IGN) are we not doing it?’. One of the main barriers to deploying medical knowledge appears to be the shear volume of new information – over 1 million original medical papers were published in 2010 alone. However we have allies to help us – there are expert groups, royal colleges, specialist societies, NICE, Map of Medicine, Bandolier, national and international consensus bodies who are systematically collecting, sifting and grading the evidence for us and telling us what we should do.

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    Yet as McGlynn et al. discovered we still don’t do it nearly 50% of the time (see table below). Why? There are healthcare organisations that do take a systematic approach to doing the right thing – Intermountain Health in Utah USA is one of the most outstanding high performing healthcare organisations in the world. Their outcomes for most common medical and surgical diagnoses are way above their peers – their mortality from sepsis is 9.3% compared to a US average of 25% – 40%. They are one of the few organisations in the US that makes a return on Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. They invented the care process model – of which more later.

     

    There will be doctors reading this (most of them) that are convinced that they are practicing to the highest and most up to date standards, and able account for that standard of care they provide. Yet the outcome from their institutions will come nowhere near those of Intermountain. Whilst they may account for their own practice they will undoubtedly be a little more taciturn on their colleague’s practice, and perhaps a little more vocal about what they perceive the standard of care provided to patients before they arrived in their care and maybe after they left as well. And there is the rub – for to deliver outstanding outcomes we have to do the right thing every step of the way on the patient’s journey – for every patient.

    A good outcome is the aggregated marginal gains of multiple inputs by many professionals. Reliable healthcare is a team sport and as Atul Gawande put it in his tour-de-force ‘The Checklist Manifesto’ we are still practicing the medicine of the heroic individual – we are only just emerging from the buccaneering age of medicine, equivalent in the airline industry of when aircraft routinely fell out of the sky. Unlike buccaneering pilots though doctors don’t die with their mistakes.

    The problem with doing the right thing is that it is rather mundane. It involves being told what to do, it involves following checklists, care bundles, protocols and pathways. It also involves agreeing with your team ‘how we are going to do things here’; that inevitably involves negotiation and compromise, going along with the consensus because doing so is for the greater good. Heroic doctors are not very good at doing those sorts of things. It also takes a lot of collaborative effort to get there.

    There is still plenty of scope for the heroic doctor though. To paraphrase Atul Gawande again ‘Checklists are there to get the 80% of mundane stuff right so that the mind is freed to do the heroic 20%’. It is vital to get the 80% right – otherwise our heroics become expensive futilities.

    The Black Zone – when it goes wrong

    Understanding and managing medical error is a huge topic in of itself – which I will undoubtedly expand in future posts. I am though in a hurry (for a change) to move on to the bit I am interested today which is the grey zone. Suffice to say for now that you cannot be a highly reliable healthcare organisation if you do not manage medical error well.

    The Grey Zone – Learning from uncertainty

    This is where it starts getting very interesting. In our daily practice as doctors our patients constantly present us with dilemmas. Situations where doing the right thing seems to be the wrong thing, or where doing the right thing for one problem is definitely the wrong thing for another. As our patients get older and compound multiple pathologies these dilemmas increase all the time. Each time we are presented with these situations it feels as though we are solving the problem for the first time over and again for each patient – we are faced with the huge and overwhelming variance in presentation and response to treatment.

    The traditional medical model for dealing with these situations is the ‘iterative care process’ underpinned by the ‘experienced clinician’. This care process involves a combination of medical detective work (history and examination), Diagnostic hypothesis (differential diagnosis), Diagnostic tests or a ‘Diagnostic Therapeutic Trial’ (we’ll give antibiotics and see if they get better…). Experience helps by being able to ask the right questions, come up with a feasible and manageable list of diagnostic hypotheses and also design a diagnostic prescription that does the minimum to confirm or refute the hypothesis. Patients will often go through several cycles of this process (either because it doesn’t solve the problem or because the patient has moved to a different team) – with escalating intensity and invasiveness of investigation – until either a diagnosis is made and correct treatment started or the progress of the condition outpaces the process and the patient succumbs (or they get better despite us).

    There are several reasons why this model is problematic and fails to deliver reliable care. The first is that the operating model of the modern hospital (the process by which patients move through the organisation) is not aligned to the iterative care process. The second is we are not very good at it any more – we don’t have enough experienced clinicians to see and review patients progress through the care process in a timely or frequent enough way. Thirdly it is slow, expensive and unreliable. Finally it does not deliver learning at anything other than an individual level – hence the very real sense in which we feel we are re-solving the same problems day-in day-out without seeming to make much progress.

    The complexity of modern medicine and modern patients, the dissolution of traditional medical teams and their replacement by the transitory, multi-professional, socially complex, modern alternatives – means we need a new model for delivering care.

    This medical model needs to achieve several things:
    1) Reliable delivery of care that we know is right that does not depend on the location of the patient, or the presence or absence of a particular professional.
    2) Keep up-to-date with the ever expanding body of medical knowledge
    3) Generate ‘Team Learning’ from variance in presentation and response
    4) Generate ‘Team Learning’ from medical errors
    5) Use that learning to modify and adapt the care process

    The ‘Care Process Model’ invented by Intermountain achieves all of these things. On first glance it appears to be a set of protocols – and many subsequent implementations have deployed it as such. However seeing it as such is missing the point – the content of the protocol is much less important than the process by which it comes about and the way that it is used.

    The diagram below shows the essence of the care process model development and more to the point continuous improvement through organisational learning.

    20120910-231035.jpg

    The essential components are:
    1) An expert team that crystallise the current state of medical knowledge into detailed guidance
    2) Clinical senate that simplify and standardise to a deployable protocol across the whole system
    3) An operating system that reliably delivers elements of the CPM at all points of the pathway – the protocol is the record
    4) A reporting and monitoring system of deviance from the pathway – an expected deviance of 20% is built in – but all deviance is reported and analysed including medical error
    5) Outcomes are monitored
    6) Information is fed back to the clinical senate that adjust the CPM

    You will see that this generates organisational learning – the system gets smarter – and that it does so using three distinct knowledge types – The global medical knowledge base generated by original research, knowledge of its own patient group through analysis of unexpected response and outcome, knowledge of itself through analysis of medical error and non-compliance.

    In my next post I will discuss the pre-requisites in culture, structure and process that are required to create organisational learning and how rare they are in the NHS.

    In a book chapter I wrote on the subject of information management in critical care, I concluded that one of the most important challenges for this generation of doctors is the transfer of clinical information management from paper to electronic systems. So far we have failed that challenge, the vast majority of clinical information is still being recorded and managed (rather poorly) on paper. Those parts that are managed electronically are, in general, still cumbersome, bespoke systems that serve functions other than the delivery of clinical care far better than the needs of doctors, nurses or even patients. As a result a lot of these systems are at best grudgingly tolerated, often despised and sometimes even avoided altogether. The majority of doctors, with the exception of the minority enthusiasts, have withdrawn from the conversation on development of information management systems (or even been left out altogether) because it has been seen as a technological challenge rather than a clinical one. This is wrong and has to change because the way we manage clinical information is a crucial enabler for radical change in health care delivery. If doctors fail in this challenge we will find ourselves marginalised and obsolete in an ‘innovatively disrupted’ health economy.

    Early Adopters

    There is, of course, some history here which partly explains our current situation. Electronic clinical information systems have been in existence for over twenty years. The early years of the development of these systems was dominated by the technological challenges. The sheer volume and complexity of information that is collected in the course of delivering clinical care was a challenge when the cost of electronic storage was high and networking infrastructure not well developed. Taming the complexity of the information – codifying it and structuring it so that it could ‘fit’ in a conventional database – was not only difficult but also met with resistance of professionals as it constrained practice and the PC / workstation became a barrier between doctor and patient. Despite these challenges there are examples of hospitals and hospital systems that showed the world how it could be done (Burton Hospital being a notable example in the NHS) and also how it could go wrong.

    The Lost Decade

    If the nineties was the pioneering decade for clinical information systems then the first decade of this century can only be characterised as the ‘lost decade’ – whilst the Internet flourished and the age of distributed, personalised, world-in-your-pocket computing dawned – hospital IT systems remained desk-bound, cumbersome, inflexible, centralised systems. The need for information sharing was misinterpreted as a need to provide a single solution for all. A strategy that has cost billions, failed to deliver and diverted funding and more importantly the engagement of the medical profession (it was often doctors with IT skills that where the pioneers of the early adoption period) away from user and patient centred solutions.

    A Tablet Ushers in a New Era of Medicine

    Technology is no longer the problem – storage is cheap and abundant, networks are reliable and fast and devices are powerful, intuitive and mobile. Data management has transformed as well. XML allied to sophisticated search algorithms means less taming of information is required, the structure of the ‘database’ need not trouble the user any longer. Cloud technology means that information can be kept absolutely secure whilst not compromising the freedom of permitted users. The technology really has come of age and has surpassed the specification required to deliver clinical information management that truly serves the needs of patients, doctors and managers. Mobile devices like the iPad can give doctors both tools for information gathering and the tools to access it when it is needed without the technology getting in the way of the transaction with the patient.

    Paper, Paper Everywhere!

    But we are still using paper – tons of it. Medical records are stuffed with cardboard folders bursting with, mostly useless, pieces of paper. The information is locked away, unstructured and inaccessible – every request for information (and there are lots) is a mountainous struggle, consuming hundreds of man hours to extract it. The functions of the paper medical record as care coordinator, communicator, clinical process manager, monitor and legal witness are all conflated and result in an extreme precautionary approach to the retention of information which completely subsumes the probably more important function as informant almost as important (and often more informative) as the patient themselves.

    It’s the Information Stupid

    It’s time for the conversation to move from the technology to the information. We must focus on the type of information we gather, how we gather it, what we need and when we need it in order to deliver safe effective care. So much duplication and iteration and re-iteration of clinical information has evolved as a defence against the in-accessibility to information. Most patients I have met are astonished at the number of times they are asked the same questions over and over again even within the same clinical episode – they see the duplication and fragmentation that we as professionals miss.

    The care we give our patients is complicated and messy – partly because our patients are complicated and inflict on us huge variance in presentation, severity, comorbidity and response to treatment. That is the nature of medicine and what makes it so all consumingly interesting. But we make life exponentially more difficult for ourselves by imposing our own variance in practice and reliability on this already unpredictable background. Doing it differently every time, sometimes even changing our mind half way through results in variance on variance which is the definition of chaos. Chaotic medicine results in unpredictable, usually poor, outcome and huge waste – and is bad medicine.

    There is an answer to the information problem which also solves the chaos problem and results in not just better care but dramatically better care. Healthcare organisations that adopt this solution are not only better than their peers they are exponentially better. The solution is the key to delivering reliable care and it is the Clinical Process Model. This will be the subject of my next blog.

    It is interesting to reflect – now that the PFI bonanza has come to an end and we all have to hunker down and work out how to pay for it for the next 30 years – on what we have spent all the money on and consider whether what we have thrown up around the land is actually what we need.

    This paper by the think tank Reform The Hospital is Dead Long Live The Hospital is an eloquent exposition of Clayton Christensen’s ‘Innovator’s Prescription’ within an NHS context. The essential conclusion of both of these is that Hospitals need to move from being ‘A place where sick people go’ to becoming ‘An organisation that keeps people well’. This re-framing of purpose prompts the question – what does a hospital that keeps people well look like? I suspect it is not a large building with lots of beds in it (or clinic rooms for that matter).

    Interestingly the specialty of Intensive Care Medicine underwent a similar re-framing of purpose over ten years ago as a result of the comprehensive critical care program in response to a lack of intensive care beds. The outcome of this process was the introduction of critical care outreach teams (or medical emergency response teams) linked to a system of population surveillance (MEWS track and trigger) and an expansion of lower acuity beds (high dependency). There were almost no additional intensive care beds commissioned or provided. The result has been intensive care units have been able absorb ten years of demand growth, almost eliminate the need for inter hospital transfer for capacity reasons, reduce futile care, contain costs and improve outcome.

    How do we replicate this operating model at the scale of the hospital within a health economy (as opposed to an intensive care unit in a hospital)? The essential elements are:
    1) Knowing the population you are caring for – a disease registry
    2) Knowing how they are – a simple method of measuring disease status
    3) A response team that averts crisis when a trigger threshold is reached – a specialist community team
    4) An escalation pathway that includes rapid access to specialist input – specialty hubs
    5) Lower acuity beds for step up or step down care – intermediate care beds
    6) Alternate pathways for those that acute care is inappropriate – end of life services
    7) Acute beds for those that genuinely need it – closely linked to an intensive care unit!

    This distributed model of care does still need buildings – but what it needs more is intelligent information and communication systems used by a workforce that understands the need to keep patients other than those in genuine need away from hospital. It also needs an operating system that measures its impact, analyses unexpected pathway deviance and learns from system failure.

    Eliminating the huge waste in the system of inappropriate and futile hospital care (both inpatient and outpatient) will not only deliver cost savings it will improve quality of care and outcomes and create the capacity we need for the growth in demand we know is coming.

    The hospital is no longer a building it is a healthcare delivery system. We should be investing in the infrastructure that makes it possible – And that is not bricks and mortar…

    In my last post I described my journey to taking the decision to become a medical director. I know that many of my colleagues, whilst being extremely generous in their congratulations and sincere in their wishes of good luck and fortune – may well be thinking along the lines “why would you do that?”. I know that is what I thought for quite some time, and a bit of me still does…

    The Cost

    The loss of clinical practice is the first barrier – it has direct cost to the individual doctor. Earning opportunities for supplementing ones basic NHS salary as a practicing clinician are legion, waiting list initiatives and private practice if pursued with dedication and vigour can easily surpass even a medical directors salary. As one becomes more and more embroiled in the maelstrom of medical leadership the loss of time (and vigour!) gradually closes off these opportunities – the arcane pay structures of the NHS are peculiarly bad at rewarding those that do choose to take that path; and when they do it results in a wholesale pillaging of ones pension by the tax man (that alone is enough to put many off).

    Most doctors though are not wholly motivated by money (fortunately) – but there is a deeper and more personal cost to moving away from clinical practice and that is the less tangible but very real issue of status. The status of medical practitioner is hard earned but once achieved is gratifyingly well rewarded. Doctors are accorded a great deal of authority and privilege both within and outside the work place – with that comes much expectation and responsibility. One’s status as a trained practitioner in your chosen specialty, the time and effort put in to achieving it and the rewards it brings through the gratitude and respect of patients, colleagues and society results in it becoming an embedded part of one’s identity – giving it up is giving up a part of yourself and replacing it with….management (why would you do that?).

    Now I’m not saying that becoming a medical director will result in a wholesale loss of status nor for that matter will I be impoverished by the move. Nevertheless I am giving up part of my identity (in my case I am giving up intensive care medicine), I am stopping doing something that on a good day is actually good fun, I am leaving behind colleagues and friends (who no doubt think me very disloyal) and replacing it all with a new and different status – one with uncertain benefits and certain risks.

    Certain Risks

    There is no doubt the climate is harsher the higher you climb the leadership pyramid (for the record I’m not a fan of hierarchical metaphors for leadership structures with all the value laden implications of rank – common usage though makes them hard to avoid…). Scrutiny is more direct, more personal and less forgiving. Failure is overt, public and consequential to one’s job. The safety net of return to clinical practice gets thinner and the holes bigger the more time you spend away from it. Exit strategies are unclear, career paths poorly defined, training and support hard to find (expensive when you find them). These are realities faced by almost anyone in positions of responsibility both in public and private sector organisations. The wind only feels chillier to a doctor because of the remarkably secure, well rewarded and unassailable position that being a consultant is.

    Uncertain Benefits

    You are paid more – though the pathway through clinical directorship and associate medical directorship on your way there is hardly littered with gold. Most Trusts struggle to release the time let alone the money to encourage doctors down the path – certainly insufficient to compensate for the opportunity costs outlined above. Your salary is a matter of public record and subject to scrutiny in a way no other consultant has to endure. Should this discourage you? – Absolutely not, the money is good enough that for the vast majority of us it is a non-issue, it’s ‘off the table’. The role brings a level of autonomy, self determination, sense of purpose and opportunity for personal development that no other leading to it can – for me this is the motivation.

    So would you do it?

    It doesn’t stack up well – and there are lots of things we could do to make it stack up better. Many outlined in this report. I am certain there are many doctors out there with the leadership skills that are needed that are reluctant to put themselves forward. My advice is take the plunge, change is good.

    On the 1st of August 2012 I will be taking up the post of Medical Director at a large NHS Trust in the Midlands UK.

    This blog is an outline of my journey to this critical juncture of my career and I intend to use it to share my experiences in this role and I hope to help others – either actual or aspiring medical directors – in their journeys too.

    It is my belief that too few doctors put themselves forward for leadership and management positions in healthcare in general and the NHS in particular. Having made the plunge – I understand why and want to use my insight to support others in following me. My motivation is that I genuinely believe that without active engagement of and leadership by doctors the quality and safety of the service we provide is significantly threatened by the current and ongoing funding crisis. Only doctors have the insight and knowledge that equips them with the skills to make the really hard choices involved in balancing cost and benefit. However to put themselves in a position where they can make those choices in a way that makes a significant difference to large numbers of patients at a scale that also makes a significant difference to the cost of delivering healthcare to the economy requires individuals to make real sacrifices.

    My Journey

    I am by training an anaesthetist and intensivist. I became a consultant in 2002 and within 2 years found myself clinical director of critical care services in one the of the largest acute trusts in the NHS – operating out of three acute hospitals. This wasn’t because I was ambitious to do so, or even envisaged myself doing that role when I was appointed, it was simply because no one else wanted or was ready to do it (neither was I). My first year as CD I had no directorate manager, I had no training but I did have a fantastic team of senior nurses and consultant colleagues willing to work together as a team. Over the subsequent 5 years I had 6 different directorate managers working with me, some excellent others less so – and therein lies one reason why we should not leave radical reform of services to non-clinicians; only doctors and nurses are in it for the long haul, managers by their nature move on, and don’t always witness the consequences of their actions.

    I am lucky to have trained and worked in a truly modern specialty – one that recognises the necessity of team working, that sees doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals as equal partners in that team delivering an outcome for the patient – one that recognises the need to take control of the whole cycle of care including the pathway to the door of the ICU (through MEWS and critical care outreach) – one that recognises the need to codify and simplify the process of care delivery in order to improve reliability (through care bundles – checklists by another name) – one that recognises the need to measure risk adjusted outcome and use it to continuously improve the service (through ICNARC). Ten years or more of this approach has resulted in an un-sung triumph of healthcare – the virtual elimination of central venous catheter related sepsis, the placing of sepsis in general at the top of the emergency medical agenda, year on year reductions in mortality (our SMR has fallen from 1.3 to a low of 0.73 just before ICNARC re-calibrated the risk model). This is not a unique success, it has been replicated in intensive care units across the country and the world.

    I recognised that there are some generalisable principles in the critical care story that if applied across a healthcare economy could bring about radical improvements in the quality of care delivered at the same time as reductions in the cost of care. This belief motivated me to not only learn more about models of healthcare delivery and their practical implementation but also to put myself in a position where I could influence – rather than remain a frustrated observer. It struck me that not only is this an area of fulminant intellectual activity, it is also an area where as an individual one can make more difference to more patients in a shorter space of time than any area of academic medicine (I am after all an archetypal anaesthetist – an impatient physician!).

    These thoughts (not necessarily as well formed at the time) led me to apply for the position of associate medical director at my Trust (in 2009), and also to the hallowed halls of Harvard Business School (in 2010/11) where I was exposed to the global cutting edge of thinking in healthcare delivery. This experience has been transformational for me personally, affirmed my belief that this is the right career path for me, and equipped me with knowledge and insights that I am impatient (again) to see put into practice. Many of the ideas will be themes I will draw out in future posts. The time is right – new ideas are becoming established in the thinking of policy makers – integrated care, outcomes frame works, value based competition, improvement science – and the need has never been more urgent.

    And so here I am in 2012 about to take up MD post at another large trust. In my next post I will talk about why many wouldn’t do what I have done and why I nearly didn’t…