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NHS: Hospital Services

Volume 741: debated on Thursday 6 December 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they are making with the reconfiguration of NHS hospital services.

My Lords, the Government’s policy is that front-line NHS reconfigurations should be locally led and clinically driven. Changes to services should be led by those who know their patients’ needs best. That is why we are empowering clinical commissioners to design the services that will make the greatest difference to improving healthcare and improving people’s lives.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply so far as it goes. In the light of yesterday’s Autumn Statement, will the Minister and his colleagues study carefully the recent Nuffield Trust report, which cogently suggested that we are facing a decade of austerity within the NHS with the need to secure 4% efficiency savings on a yearly basis, not just to 2015 but up to 2021-22? Will Health Ministers engage in a serious dialogue with the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges whose new chairman, Professor Terence Stephenson, suggested in July that we had far too many acute centres trying to provide 24/7 services across too wide a range of medical specialities? Will he accept, particularly in the light of the Answer that he gave to the previous Question, that we should be doing more to take money out of acute hospitals that are performing indifferently and putting it into community-based services?

My Lords, I think it is common ground between the noble Lord and the Government that we need to see care delivered more in the community and less in acute settings; that was a policy that his Government espoused. I agree with the noble Lord and with Terence Stephenson that we need to deploy clinical leadership, evidence and insight as a driving force behind service change. Service change is not new; it has happened all the time throughout the NHS’s history. Clinical commissioning groups on the ground will be the driving force for this, but the NHS Commissioning Board will be there in support and the wisdom of the royal colleges will clearly need to be tapped to provide the board with expert clinical advice. Indeed, that is the theme behind the board’s aim to establish clinical networks and senates to help build the clinical evidence for change.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that too many patients are still being admitted to hospital solely to undergo investigations and tests that could perfectly well be carried out on an out-patient basis? Is it not therefore time to reconfigure out-patient services so that individuals will be in a position to attend hospital in order to have a clinical consultation and all the relevant tests on a single visit? That would avoid a great number of unnecessary hospital admissions.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. He is right to say that many hospital admissions prove to be unnecessary, wasteful and expensive and we need to ensure that those who do not need to go to hospital can be appropriately looked after in the community. We also need to reduce the level of unplanned, emergency admissions to hospital. There is huge scope to do this. Many trusts are already succeeding in bringing more services into the community, but we need to accelerate the process.

Does my noble friend agree that one thing that emerges very clearly is that real difficulties arise from not having a 24/7 primary care service, which means that figures for weekends and holidays are of course much worse than they are for the normal level of health service provision? Does he agree that it is well worth looking at bringing into the work of CCGs the contribution that can be made by ancillary services to medicine, in order to move towards a 24/7 primary care service?

I agree with my noble friend and that is why work is currently being done under the leadership of Sir Bruce Keogh in the Department of Health to examine the scope for greater 24/7 working. She is right that this is important, not just for the benefit of patients but also to make the NHS more efficient and effective in deploying its staff and assets.

We have reverted to the previous Question, if I am not mistaken. The departmental expenditure limit is set by the Treasury. My own department is in the fortunate position of knowing that it has real-terms increases every year of this Parliament; however, if the department has an underspend that cannot be carried forward, yes, some money has to be returned to the Treasury.

Does my noble friend accept that if he takes the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Warner, and moves resources from acute services to other services in the NHS, that will lead to the closure of many general hospitals that were built under the previous Government under PFIs, and even more of them will get into financial trouble than there are already?

I do not anticipate that there will be widespread closures of hospitals, and it is important to reassure people about that. The NHS has always had to respond to patients’ changing needs and advances in medical technology. Reconfiguration that ensues from that is about modernising the delivery of care and facilities with a view to improving patient outcomes and developing services, as I have mentioned, in a way that makes them available closer to people’s homes. While we will see changes in service configuration, I trust and hope that we will not see widespread hospital closures, although the possibility of a hospital having to downsize can never be eliminated.