Using technology to build a partnership of trust with patients

Professor Sir Chris Ham writing at The King’s Fund: Recently I spent a day visiting the Haughton Thornley Medical Centres in Tameside, Greater Manchester, at the invitation of Amir Hannan, one of the partners in the practice. I’ve been aware of Amir’s work in engaging patients for some time and it was featured in our 2015 report on innovations in care. I jumped at his invitation and was fascinated by what I saw.

Amir showed me how patients access their own health records and gain a better understanding of their health care needs. Access and understanding are enabled by the use of apps that provide full online access to the GP electronic health record alongside the practice-based web portal. Patients are also able to book appointments, order repeat prescriptions and send two-way secure messages online.

Innovation in Care

Two-thirds of the 12,500 people registered with the practice have signed up (after an individual consenting process) for the online service and all the patients I met were aware of the service and were using it. This is a much higher coverage than in the rest of general practice, where the most recent GP patient survey shows awareness of online services offered by GP practices is still relatively low with use of these services considerably lower. The last survey showed only 3.3 per cent of respondents were accessing their medical records online.

Access to records and understanding are the foundations on which Amir, his partners and other colleagues have sought to build a partnership of trust with patients and staff. They are doing so in a practice that was formerly run by Harold Shipman, who achieved notoriety when he was convicted of murdering some of his patients between the 1970s and the 1990s. The commitment to responsible sharing and partnership has helped restore confidence in the care that is provided, and the practice was recently rated outstanding by the Care Quality Commission.

I saw how this works by sitting in on Amir’s morning clinic with his patients. The philosophy I observed was of patients being enabled to take more control of their health and wellbeing, for example, by checking test results, identifying and flagging any errors or omissions, and tracking trends in their care. Later in the day, I tested my observations in a roundtable discussion chaired by Ingrid Brindle who leads the practice’s patient participation group.

One of the benefits for patients is that they can share their records when they come into contact with other services and with family and carers. The latter is valuable for patients who are not confident in using online access themselves. There are particular benefits for patients with long-term conditions who are able to monitor their conditions and use information on their records to adjust their choices.

Reflecting on what I saw and heard, I was reminded of a phrase I heard many years ago on a visit to Kaiser Permanente in California, US. One of its medical leaders, David Sobell, told me that the most important primary care providers are patients themselves; the decisions patients take every day have a bigger impact on their health and care than those made by GPs, nurses and other clinicians. Systems like Kaiser Permanente had been slow to recognise this and Sobell was leading work to promote greater self-care by patients.

The NHS has also been slow to turn the rhetoric of patient engagement and patient empowerment into practice. The experience of Amir Hannan, Ingrid Brindle and their colleagues shows that progress is possible where there is a sustained commitment to develop a partnership of trust with patients. To be sure, the Haughton Thornley Medical Centres have more to do to get all clinicians, patients and the wider health and social care system involved, but their work demonstrates what can be achieved even within the limitations of existing systems and workload pressures.

What I saw was an example of the kind of NHS we need in the future, based on different relationships between patients and clinicians. These relationships have to be seen as meetings of equals in which the expertise of patients is at least as important as the expertise of clinicians and managers. They must acknowledge the responsibilities of patients as well as their rights and the vital contribution of patients in using information and understanding to improve their own health and wellbeing.

Technology can support this transformation, but fundamentally it is about a new deal with the public appropriate for the 21st century. As Derek Wanless warned in 2002, the public must be fully engaged in their care, otherwise the NHS will become unsustainable. The accumulation of many more locally led innovations, such as the one I observed, offers one promising way of heeding his warning and putting patients at the heart of care. I was left puzzled as to why all practices aren’t yet working in this way.

Hospital bed numbers – can the downward trend continue?

Since sustainability and transformation partnerships (STPs) published their plans late last year, the issue of the number of NHS hospital beds has been rising up the health care agenda. Alongside integrating health and social care and boosting primary and community services, some STPs – for example Dorset, Derbyshire and some STPs in London – have included proposals to reduce the number of hospital beds in their plans.

Subsequently, some stakeholder groups have voiced concern: for example, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine thinks that the NHS needs more beds, not fewer, if it is to meet performance targets. So we decided to look into the number of hospital beds, explore trends and ask if it’s realistic to reduce numbers further in the coming years.

Hospital Beds

The NHS has been reducing the number of beds for decades: since 1987/8, the total number has more than halved from around 299,000 to 142,000. Within that, the numbers of beds for people with learning disabilities and mental health problems have fallen more substantially – by 96 and 72 per cent respectively. Several changes in the way that care is provided have made these reductions possible. For example, care for people with mental health problems and learning disabilities has gradually shifted from institutional settings into the community; technical improvements in surgery have meant more patients undergo day surgery – in cataract surgery almost all operations are now day cases; and average length of stay for hospital patients has fallen from eight to five days over the past 15 years thanks to developments in clinical practice and how patients are managed.

But can this downward trend in number of beds continue?

On the one hand, there are clearly opportunities to use hospital beds more productively. As the Getting It Right First Time initiative has highlighted, there are substantial variations in average length of stay for some procedures across different hospitals. Variations in how complex older patients are managed means these patients spend more days in hospital in some areas of the country than in others. And many patients experience delays in the discharge process meaning they spend time in hospital when they are no longer benefiting from being there. In July this year, more than 5,860 beds were occupied by patients whose discharge was delayed. Progress in these areas would help to make more productive use of existing hospital beds. While national NHS leaders are keen to make such progress, it is unlikely to be straightforward, as recent tensions between NHS England and local government over efforts to cut delayed transfers of care exemplify.

On the other hand, however, today there are a number of factors that make the wisdom of reducing the number of hospital beds far more uncertain than it may have been in the past. England’s population is growing and ageing: by 2030 one in five people in England will be aged over 65, and therefore more likely to need health care. Demand for hospital care is rising with increases in A&E attendances, emergency admissions, and elective admissions. In turn, bed-occupancy levels in hospitals have risen to new highs in the past few years; in 2016/17 overnight general and acute bed occupancy averaged 90.3 per cent. Reductions in average length of stay have slowed in recent years, and may well slow further in the years ahead. Out-of-hospital services – particularly intermediate care and social care – which play a key role in supporting people as they leave hospital are under real strain with access to publicly funded social care becoming more difficult. Finally, the simple fact that the vast majority of beds for those with mental health problems or learning disabilities and beds for the long-term care of older people have already been closed means there is very little scope to reduce numbers further. Instead, future reductions in the number of hospital beds would mean reducing the number of acute beds, which historically has been more difficult. These factors help to explain why the pace of reduction in the total number of hospital beds has slowed in recent years – falling only around 4 per cent between 2012/13 and 2016/17 – and why bed-occupancy levels have risen.

The NHS’s record over the past 30 years is one of success. Adopting new ways of providing care has allowed the service to provide higher-quality care to increasing numbers of patients while reducing the number of hospital beds. But it doesn’t follow that the number of beds can be reduced indefinitely. Today circumstances make it less clear how patient needs are going to be met effectively if more beds are closed – particularly in light of the lack of money to develop alternative out-of-hospital services. So, while some areas may be able to safely reduce the number of beds, substantial reductions in the total number of NHS hospital beds in the next few years seem neither achievable or desirable.

Source: Leo-Ewbank at the King’s Fund