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NHS: Targets

Volume 723: debated on Monday 20 December 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what they propose the role of targets in the National Health Service should be.

My Lords, from 2012-13 the NHS commissioning board will be responsible for the delivery of NHS services, based on the NHS outcomes framework. The operating framework for the NHS published last week sets out the priorities for the NHS for the transition year of 2011-12 and details how the NHS will move to a health economy driven by outcomes for 2012-13.

I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. He will recall that, in October, the Health Secretary said that the coalition never committed to a one-week target for cancer patients to get their test results

“because there is not enough clinical evidence to support it”.

However, in November, the noble Earl the Minister told this House that a

“one-week access target would not be the best use of the resources that we have”.—[Official Report, 11/11/10; col. 319.]

Why exactly did the Government scrap the target? Was it the cost, or was there a clinical justification? If it was both, which justification was the most important? If the clinical evidence played any part in this decision, could he please place the evidence in the Library of the House?

My Lords, the announcement made by the previous Government for the one-week target was an unfunded, as well as very expensive, commitment. At the moment, the median wait for the 15 key diagnostic tests is 1.8 weeks—it fluctuates between 1.5 weeks and thereabouts. To bring that down to a maximum of one week would have cost many hundreds of millions of pounds. We judged that there are better ways in which to speed up access to diagnostic tests for a lot less money. That is why we recently announced that £25 million will be made available next year to help GPs to get direct access to tests for cancer without first having to make an appointment with a specialist. That money will buy up to 150,000 extra tests. We have thought round this problem—if I may put it that way—and thought around the conventional referral pathways. I believe that we will arrive at a very satisfactory result.

Can the Minister tell me his view as to how exactly things will work? Although some targets were considered bad, unnecessary and unproductive, others produced some good results. Will the targets be replaced by a code of practice or guidance, or will people simply be left to manage as best they can?

My noble friend is right. Of course the waiting time target achieved a great deal in bringing down waits for elective procedures, but the target had some unwanted effects in that it distorted clinical priorities and, many people felt, took the focus away from many areas of care that deserved greater focus. We need to focus on outcomes for patients. Therefore, instead of setting process-based targets, our aim will be to ensure that, wherever possible, the NHS uses the measures that clinicians themselves use as a basis for improving their services—in other words, measures that are clinically credible and evidence based. That is how we have tried to frame the outcomes framework.

Does not the Minister agree that the Secretary of State’s proposals for competitiveness within the health service will in effect privatise the NHS?

My Lords, I do not accept that. The previous Government recognised that contestability in the provision of care was a very powerful driver to improve quality of services. I do not think that privatisation of the health service will result from the proposals. We will reach a better stage of quality in provision of care only if we allow the best providers out there to compete for services. As long as the principles of the NHS remain—which they will do under this Government—for a service free at the point of need without being based on ability to pay, we will have the NHS that we all know and love.

My Lords, given that the Government have committed themselves to clinical outcomes and measurable improvements in patient well-being, how will the Government ensure that managerial demands for the kind of target culture that we experienced previously will not overwhelm any attempts to measure clinical outcome or patient well-being?

My Lords, many of the data that will underpin the monitoring of the outcomes framework are already collected as a matter of routine but are just not used. In the outcomes framework, we shall reduce the number of outcomes to many fewer than have been in play under the previous Government’s process-based targets. We do not see our proposals as imposing unnecessary or impossible extra burdens on the NHS.

I need to cultivate a louder voice, obviously. Can the Minister give an example of where competition in healthcare delivery has improved outcomes?

I am sorry that the noble Lord is a sceptic on these matters. In the field of mental health care, for example, where there is a long-standing position of private sector contestability, we have seen that standards have been driven up. There is no doubt that the foundation trust model has also paved the way for higher quality in healthcare.

My Lords, turning to waiting lists for accident and emergency services, which we obviously want to provide the highest possible care, I want to ask how the newly proposed scheme will improve the quality of care. For example, how will the abolition of the 19-minute response time to a 999 call that is not life threatening affect the health outcome for an elderly lady who has slipped and broken her wrist on the ice? Such a slip may not be life threatening, but the elderly lady may wait for quite some time for an ambulance and then wait considerably longer than four hours in accident and emergency. Is the waiting time not an outcome here? If the Government do not intend to introduce a new outcomes framework for two years, would the Government not be better to leave the current guarantees in place because we know that they ensure patient safety?

My Lords, on ambulance response times, the existing eight-minute target will remain in place for category A calls. For category B calls, which are serious but not immediately life threatening, Peter Bradley, who is the national ambulance director, has been working with Professor Cooke to develop a set of 11 clinical quality indicators for the ambulance service. We are clear that those indicators will provide a much better and more rounded set of objectives than a mere 19-minute response time. Of course response times are important, but there are other things that should be focused on as well. We hope to improve standards in this way as from April next year.