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Clinical Commissioning: North Durham

Volume 617: debated on Wednesday 23 November 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered changes in clinical commissioning group commissioning practices for GP referrals in North Durham.

I asked for this debate as a result of a development that affects many in my constituency and other constituencies covered by the North Durham clinical commissioning group. I was made aware of it not by the clinical commissioning group but by “BBC Look North”, which received a tip-off from a GP about an upcoming change to the way GPs refer patients to a specialist. The change made by North Durham CCG fundamentally alters the way in which a GP refers a patient to a specialist.

It was always the case that if a GP saw a patient and considered that their health condition needed further investigation, they would be able to refer that patient directly to a specialist. The scheme introduced by North Durham CCG adds an additional layer of referral: if a GP wants to refer a patient, they must send a letter and medical records explaining why to a private health company called About Health, which will decide whether a patient should be referred to a specialist. That means that, in effect, a private company that has never seen the patient can overrule the decision of the patient’s GP to refer them to a specialist in a hospital. Conditions that would be referred under the new system include cardiology, gynaecology, dermatology and gastroenterology. Suspected cancer cases would be excluded from the system, although many cancers are detected when patients present with other health issues.

The decision to implement the scheme was taken following a year-long trial carried out by North Tyneside CCG. We do not yet know the clinical outcomes of the patients involved in that trial, but North Durham decided to roll out the scheme even without that information. North Durham CCG’s decision to adopt the new practice for referrals was also made without proper consultation of local residents or patients. Many patients were not even informed that confidential information about their health status was being shared with a private company. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and I had a meeting with the clinical commissioning group in September, only weeks before it introduced the new scheme, and yet it made no mention of the scheme whatever.

I am listening to the debate with astonishment. General practitioners, by their very name, are generalists, are highly trained and should be aware of the signs and symptoms of diseases and know who to refer patients to, but the intervention of a private company has been inserted as a barrier to patients getting specialist treatment. I cannot believe what I am hearing. I am sure my hon. Friend shares my surprise.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Indeed, I was shocked and surprised. In fact, when “BBC Look North” presented me with the information, my immediate reaction was of huge concern for my constituents. I did an interview for “BBC Look North” and was then contacted by other news outlets. As a result of those interviews, I was contacted by many of my constituents, some of whom had already been adversely affected by the new referral system, and by GPs who said they were being forced to jump through hoops or to refer their patients unnecessarily to physiotherapy services when they knew that treatment would not help before they could refer to a specialist in a hospital.

I was also contacted by a GP in the area covered by North Tyneside CCG who said that he had referred a patient to a specialist for a skin condition but the referral was overruled by the new scheme, which is called the referral management system. The skin condition turned out to be cancer, but that was not discovered until months further down the line, which meant that far more radical surgery was required than would have been the case if the patient had been seen by a specialist when the GP first referred them.

I therefore have a number of serious concerns about the referral system and the way in which the decision to implement it was made. My first concern is the possible negative impact on the health of my constituents and other people who live in areas affected by the new patient referral management schemes. I am concerned because whether a referral to a specialist goes ahead or not could have a long-term impact on the health of the patient or even result in something more serious, especially if decisions are overturned by About Health. A patient might not receive the treatment they need early enough.

I am also concerned about the financial impact of the decision. I understand that the NHS is under considerable financial pressure, but I doubt whether the scheme will end up saving money in the long run. That is because, as I just set out, in many cases where referrals are rejected the problem does not go away and patients return to their GP or even go to A&E with far more serious problems, which take up more of the NHS’ time and resources. About Health, the private company deciding on referrals, will be paid a basic fee and an additional £10 for each referral letter, which in itself will incur a significant cost. I am therefore not at all sure that the scheme is cost-effective.

My final concern is about the lack of public consultation and information on the decision to implement the scheme. Last October, the Secretary of State for Health announced plans to rate CCGs to make

“the most patient-focused NHS culture ever”,

which would be

“much more accountable to their local population than previously.”

The decision made by North Durham CCG to change completely the way in which GPs can refer a patient to a specialist without any consultation flies in the face of CCGs being accountable to the local population. How are people supposed to hold a CCG to account if they are not aware of changes that are being made?

The North Durham patient reference group meets monthly in Durham city to discuss patients’ points of view and give feedback to the CCG about proposals and issues. The group, which is drawn from members of each GP practice forum across Durham, was informed of the new referral scheme only as it was about to be introduced, and it was not given any opportunity to give feedback on proposals. Despite meeting monthly, members of the group had not even heard about the plans before they were presented with them and told that they were to be introduced imminently.

Similarly, members of patient forums at local GP practices were informed of the decision, rather than consulted on it. I am told that patient forums and the North Durham patient reference group were concerned and opposed the immediate implementation of the proposals, but North Durham CCG decided to go ahead and implement the new scheme immediately in any case.

This is a really important point for the Minister. If a patient goes on to the CCG’s website, what they see does not tell them that their details will be given to a private company; they are simply told that a referral system is in place and that referrals are to “consultants” or “specialist GPs”. I think many patients would conclude from that wording that their medical information is to be sent to a specialist at a local hospital rather than to a private company.

I have written to the CCGs in the north-east to invite them to meet me and other members of the northern group of MPs to discuss this issue. It has been extremely difficult to get them to come to a meeting with us or indeed to get any information from them at all. I have some questions, which I will put quickly, to give my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham time to speak. Does the Minister know of any other clinical commissioning groups in the UK that have implemented a patient referral management service? Does he think that it is acceptable that no consultation was carried out? Will the practice be repeated by other CCGs across the UK—particularly ones ranked as in special measures? How can About Health, or other private companies, be held accountable if decisions result in negative outcomes for the health of patients? Does the Minister agree that the referral system is acceptable at all?

Both the Minister and the Member who moved the debate have agreed that Kevan Jones and Julie Cooper may speak, on the understanding that they will speak for under five minutes and two minutes respectively.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) on securing the debate.

The decision of the North Durham CCG raises some fundamental questions about how the NHS is run in North Durham, and our constituents’ relationship with the NHS. As my hon. Friend described, there was no consultation of my constituents about the decision, which was taken in secret. There was no transparency at all, nor any consultation with Members of Parliament in the CCG area or any local elected officials. The decision changes the fundamental relationship of trust between a patient and their GP. My constituents have never been asked for permission for our private medical information to be passed to a private company—and neither have I or my hon. Friend. We have not been asked whether the company has our individual permissions. In many cases I do not think constituents have even been told by their GPs that the information is being passed to a private company.

What is the legal position on the giving of my private medical information, and that of my constituents, to a third party? Who is responsible for ensuring that it is secure? Do I have a right, given that it is my personal medical information, to withhold permission for it to be passed to a private third sector organisation? I certainly do not think that patients in North Durham are being told that that is happening. As my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham said, the website does not give the impression that the information is being given to a third party.

The way the decision was taken was shameless. As my hon. Friend has already said, we met the CCG in September and there was no mention of the contract at all. I want to ask why. One of my constituents, Keith Johnson, raised concerns and the CCG responded:

“GPs have responsibility to make best use of NHS resources and need up to date evidence and advice to be able to treat patients in practice or to refer on appropriately. Unnecessary outpatient appointments are a large cost to the NHS.”

I do not think anyone would disagree, but that is the job of GPs; it is not up to a private sector organisation, or anyone else who has never seen the patient, to decide whether they should be referred to a specialist.

My concern is not just the way the decision is being implemented, but the fact that it fundamentally breaks down the trust that we all value, and the confidentiality between us and our GP. I am also concerned that the more articulate constituents and patients will insist on getting care; some others will not. There will be rationing of care, depending on people’s ability to make their case. That goes to the principle at the heart of the NHS—care being free at the point of need.

I have questions about the way the contract was let. We have had no information about how that happened. Was it by competitive tender? Did any individuals employed by the CCG have any pecuniary interest in awarding the contract? How will it be evaluated? What ability will patients have to say whether they agree with the outcomes? I challenge the North Durham CCG to publish the contract and all information and decision making about how it was awarded, because the cloak of secrecy around it is a disgrace. I also challenge it to scrap the contract and answer a basic question: why is it treating its patients with such contempt?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) for bringing this important subject to the fore. I have a few comments. First, on the question of the impact on patients, what assessment has been made about conditions going untreated? There has been nothing about safety implications. Patients could be affected in two ways: a condition might be untreated and, as has been mentioned, their private, confidential information would go to a private company where the people are not medically trained. We have already seen from other contracts, such as with Capita, total disrespect in the handling of patient records.

Secondly, what is happening is a challenge to the professionalism of general practitioners. We spend a lot of time and money, over many years, on training experts. No wonder we cannot retain staff in the NHS if this is how we treat them. Some important questions need to be answered. The whole thing is cloaked in secrecy. There is an underhand feel to it. It is important that we get answers to a lot of questions. Can the Minister tell us who decided that what is happening was okay? Why has there been no public consultation or transparency? Where is the risk assessment? Why were patients not informed that confidential information about their health was being shared with a private company? How much is the company paid for its role? How much has been saved? How many referrals have been cancelled? We need the answers because what is being done is rationing by the back door, with the potential to compromise patient safety.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Davies. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) on obtaining the debate, and I congratulate the other hon. Members who spoke too. It is good to have a chance to discuss the matter and weigh up the pros and cons of what is being done.

The context is the CCG in the hon. Lady’s area, which consists of 31 GP practices. It has been rated as a good CCG by the Care Quality Commission. Its treatment referral time is above the national standard, at 92% within 18 weeks. I want to talk first about the policy area, and then about the specifics of the decision to employ About Health in North Tyneside and North Durham.

The first thing to say about the policy is that referral management is not a new area. In 2007, something like 70% of primary care trusts had a type of referral management system in place. The intention is fairly clear: when a GP is making a referral, it will be absolutely obvious in many cases that it needs to happen. In many other cases it will be clear that a referral is not needed. There will also, frankly, be a grey area in the middle—that will happen in any profession.

Will the Minister focus on this specific referral system, under which, we understand, all referrals to specialists from GP practices in the CCG area are subject to private company screening and there is also a target to send back at least 50% of all referrals made?

I was explaining the purpose of the policy and the fact that this referral mechanism was used widely in 2007. A King’s Fund report from 2010 sets out the pros and cons of using referral management—I suggest the hon. Lady reads it.

These things are not new. They are a mechanism by which a consultant, or a GP with a specialist interest in the area of what is being referred—there are six areas of referral in this CCG, as the hon. Lady said—has two to three days to either accept that the referral goes on to the secondary system, or to contact the GP and have a discussion about what the best alternative pathway might be. There is an appeals process if the GP does not agree with that decision.

The hon. Lady asked where else such referral management was being done across the NHS in England. It was introduced in 2007, as I said, and it is being done very commonly. It is being done in Bromley, Cambridge, Peterborough, Imperial in London, and Southampton. I saw a similar system in Tower Hamlets to the one working in her area—indeed, the GP was very proud of the way they reacted, with an email referral system, when there was every possibility of things not going ahead.

This is not rationing. It is completely wrong to say that. It was brought in by the CCG, which is GP-led. If the GPs in the CCG do not agree with it, they have the mechanism to replace the chairman of the CCG.

I understand what the Minister is saying, but what about the patient? Where does the patient come into this? If I go to my GP and he says I need a referral, that is between me and my GP. If it was not for my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) or the BBC raising this, none of my constituents—or myself and my hon. Friend, who are patients of the CCG—would have known about it. Will the Minister please answer the point about the patients?

The point I was in the middle of making—which I will finish making—is that if the GPs in the CCG have difficulty with the scheme, they have the mechanism to replace the CCG chairman and therefore to not go ahead with the scheme, so the GPs in his area are presumably content with it.

The fact is that the GPs vote for the head of the CCG who has put the scheme into place. On the patient issue, which is a fair one, if the patient expresses a preference to go to a secondary or an acute hospital and have an appointment, which could typically be six to eight weeks away, of course that is part of the process, and of course the referral management schemes will take that into account.

I am sorry, that is not the case. In North Durham, patients have not been told about it. If I went to a GP who said I needed a referral, I would not be told that. What the Minister is saying is in complete contrast to what he told me during a debate on coeliac disease a few weeks ago, in which he condemned CCGs for not consulting people before awarding contracts.

We are moving around a little bit here, but I will come to the point about consultation. The GP that the hon. Gentleman refers to is a part of a CCG that has made the decision to extend the North Tyneside pilot to North Durham. All I am saying is that those GPs are part of the CCG and that presumably the CCG is doing this because it believes the clinical out-turns are right. We have a locally driven system. I will make some progress on the benefits of this for patients.

I will make some progress; I have taken a lot of interventions.

The benefits to patients are that a consultant will review their case within two or three days of a GP referral and a decision will be made on the appropriate pathway. That is why the King’s Fund recommended these sorts of systems in 2010—in terms of patient out-turns—and that is why it is of benefit to patients.

One example that the hon. Member for City of Durham talked about was a skin case that resulted in cancer. That is a very serious situation, and if it happened in the way that she says, it should be investigated. Another example is when a patient with acne was referred to a dermatologist at a hospital. The referral system said, “Why have we not tried a cream for this first?” That process was put into place two or three days later, as opposed to having an eight-week wait for a specialist appoint. That is of benefit to the patient.

I have given way a lot; I want to make some progress.

That is also of benefit to GPs, because they can quickly validate decisions on the best pathway for those grey areas that may or may not require a referral with a consultant who knows more than them about that particular discipline. Of course, it is of benefit to the providers because it takes away something like 20% of unnecessary outpatient appointments. Indeed, one of the providers for the scheme in North Tyneside has asked for it to be extended to an additional discipline, because they feel that some of the referrals they receive are unnecessary and that the referral management system—in the way we have been doing it in the NHS for the past decade—is a mechanism for preventing that.

The only information that North Tyneside CCG has put into the public domain is how much money it has saved through this system. It has not made an assessment of clinical outcomes for patients at all.

I am going to talk about the About Health situation and the people who have been awarded the contract in North Durham. It is a one-year pilot that builds on the one-year scheme in North Tyneside. I think it started last month; it covers six disciplines and it does not cover urgent referrals, in particular cancer. All the national requirements for referral-to-treatment times still count in exactly the same way. The local CCG performed a risk analysis before it decided to take the scheme forward and build on what happened in North Tyneside, and the scheme is monitored.

I have been told that a very important feature is that there is a clear GP appeals process. If they are not happy with a decision that has been taken, that process can happen very quickly.

The GP represents the patients in the health system; that is the fact of the matter. If there are out-turns that are detrimental to patients, as the hon. Member for City of Durham implied, that is a serious situation and should be investigated.

About Health is CQC-regulated—with all that goes with that—in exactly the same way as a GP practice. It is staffed by NHS consultants and GPs with a particular interest. As I said, there is a two or three-day turnaround, and they have to have the same indemnity cover as everybody else. Part of what the CCG is doing is to save money—that is true. Inappropriate outpatient appointments mean that more people than necessary are working. If that can be reduced, there is a cost saving to the national health service. It is about optimising pathways.

I will make a little bit more progress and let the hon. Gentleman in later.

This is about stopping inappropriate treatment; it is absolutely not about rationing. If it was about rationing, the whole referral management system would not have been first introduced by the last Labour Government. I think it is incredible that that point has not come across more strongly.

One of the concerns is that About Health is a private company. It is a private organisation that has won the contract, and the local CCG made that decision. Fair questions were asked about the confidentiality of patient records, in terms of them going across a boundary to a private company. My first point, which is an obvious one, is that GP practices are all private companies. Every partner that works in a GP practice works in a private company, in the same way that the GPs who work for About Health are working for a private company. However, all the requirements around patient confidentiality that About Health needs to make sure are in place apply in exactly the same way as they do in every other part of the national health service.

The point about that is that I, as a patient, have not given permission for that. The way this has been done—with no consultation, which the Minister says is wrong—means that no one knows what is actually happening.

I was going to come to the point about consultation—I do not have a great deal of time left now. It is right to say there was no consultation on this, and that is because this is an administrative process change. There is no service change—

We are clearly not going to agree on this point, but there is no service change in what is being done.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended.