Do you glaze over when they report the latest A&E statistics? It’s all about what % of patients were seen within four hours. The latest figure for July is 89.3% and while it produces a lot of headlines, gnashing of teeth and calls for more resources, the saddest little note in the NHS England Statistical Commentary is where it says, “The 95% standard was last met in July 2015.”
Readers of this column know that I’ve been campaigning against the target culture that grips the NHS for many years. For me the personal journey was working in manufacturing in 1990 when I came across the work of W Edwards Deming, who said we must abolish all numerical targets. I fought against that thought internally as I tried to come up with ever cleverer targets for the factory, to cover all bases of timeliness, efficiency and quality. Until I crumbled – they could never work.
Nearly thirty years later we have this regime in the NHS which daily makes hard working professional people feel like failures. It has seen off a string of hospital chief executives who were either unlucky enough or failed to cook the books enough to keep their impossible jobs when the inspector called.
Measurement and accountability matter, but they are completely different from targets. Just briefly, let us suppose that the time to be treated in A&E matters – well I think it does – we can measure the median time, and chart it day by day, week by week, ever so simply. Everyone can be engaged in improving the system which will show in this and other appropriate measures. Fear of failure is replaced by pride in work.
I’m building up to some quite astonishing news but while we are on the theme, similar thinking is applied to ambulance response times. Red C1 and C2 calls have to get a response in 8 minutes 75% of the time, and there’s a vast bureaucracy, dreaming up and calculating the numbers and beating up the failures. Sigh.
Back in the GP world thankfully there are not so many high profile arbitrary targets (arbitrary ratings on arbitrary measures by CQC are another matter) but there is related anxiety about some of what we do. We get asked “How does your online askmyGP system handle red flags?” I assume on the basis that the patient may have something urgent wrong with them.
My answer is always the same: “Red flags are dangerous because algorithms cannot completely and safely cover all eventualities, yet they can give a false sense of security.”
Because we are very concerned about patient safety, we have a different approach, which is to understand that safety is a function of the system as a whole. Rapid response by a GP, appropriate to the patient and their condition, is a very safe system. Oh, and we make it very clear to the patients, “Do not use in emergency.”
We are also very clear on what they can expect, which is a next day response out of hours, or in working hours “usually within the hour.”
When GPs doing our Pathfinder diagnostic hear about this they often blanch and explain how they would water this down as it’s clearly impossible. And then we look at the data.
So here is the astonishing news from the first two practice launches with our new software (no, you didn’t miss anything, we haven’t announced it yet). In the first week of operation they achieved a first response average time respectively of 6.0 and 5.2 minutes.
That’s a personal response from a GP who has seen their request and triaged how to help (a face to face may come later). But it’s average, all demand, not just what someone considers urgent. No blue lights, no inspectors, no targets, no pressure, no overwork, no rework, just ordinary GPs, predictable demand and good flow.
Have an ordinary weekend.
PS Dr Simon Wade of Webinars for GPs has invited me to present this Wednesday 22nd August 8 – 9pm. Do join us on “Workload stress and burnout: can online access make a difference?” CPD points too!