So the Government have found £500m worth of savings that that they can re-invest in A&E to ensure that targets are hit this winter.
More money can only be good news surely… – but there have to be questions to answer – and some discussion to be had. Below are some of my thoughts and I would be intrigued to hear different opinions on this, especially from people in South Manchester!
My first concern is generally about targets, how they are set and how this drives funding. This funding is all predicated about the fact that A&E departments never met the 95% of patients being seen within 4 hours.
Of course it helps the patient experience if 100% are dealt with inside 4 hours – though I will be reminded that sometimes it is clinically not right to move some people so there needs to be some flex in the breach. There was a point when the target was 98% but the coalition didn’t believe this was clinically justified and moved it to 95%: what I can’t find anywhere is clinical justification for it being 95% either!
Politicians will raise the fact the NHS has ‘failed’ to hit its target if 94.8% of patients are dealt with within 4 hours and claim success if it is 95.1% and of course a breach could be two minutes or eight hours – the data/targets don’t tell us this because they are a blunt instrument. In truth does patient experience and patient outcome change dramatically by the odd % point change? Do we notice the difference?
In the recent Friends & Family test data all of 15 people out of a possible 4,000+ responded for A&E at UHSM (Wythenshawe Hospital)– all of whom said they would recommend the service: it would be great to know why 99.6% never responded – the data does become rather pointless with a .4% return rate.
The other issue about targets that I think the government give very mixed messages: in the light of the Mid Staffs report Jeremy Hunt said that ‘…NHS Managers have been too focused on targets…’ and need to put care first. I for one agree with him – so why now issue £500m with an absolute clear message that this is about focusing on… a target. It would seem to me that by his own admission, too much focus on the target and not enough on care could bring around the tragedy that we saw at Mid Staffs: so how do we know this £500m will improve patient care and not fill funding gaps and lead to more creative ways of ensuring the targets are hit?
My second question is why is the A&E target such a ‘trophy target’? I know that it can be a ‘barometer’ for the way the rest of the system is working: are there enough beds available, are social services able to support patient discharge etc but it is not the be all and end all: you would think that if we hit 95% target in A&E instead of 94.9% then all must be well and good with the system – whilst it is broke if we hit the lower figure. This isn’t true and never will be.
The truth is the system is all interlinked: we could have a focus on the targets related to getting stroke patients into specialist stroke beds: which is probably being missed as we are using the beds for patients we are pushing out of A&E and don’t have other spare beds. If we focused on the specialist stroke beds we might need to stop the flow from A&E and then suddenly hit the A&E target. In my view the A&E target is just the easiest to understand: most of us have had or know of someone who has had, what feels like an unacceptable wait in A&E: so the message fits with some patient experience – though many of those long waits we complain about didn’t last longer than 3 hours 59 mins and 59 seconds – that clearly crucial point in the world of targets.
I see Clare Gerada of the Royal College of GPs says that the investment is a ‘sticking plaster’ and points, at what she claims, is a crisis in primary care. Many patients we hear from complain about access to GPs – this is a problem that manifests itself in people turning up at A&E when they could and should be seen by their GP. However we frame it, most patients seem to believe that accessing their GP is too difficult and would welcome more GPs to help improve access.
My final ‘beef’ is with the way that the NHS is chastised if it misses targets – when in other areas of Government providers are praised for nearly hitting targets: Work Programme providers from the private sector were praised for improvements in performance recently despite massively missing targets: I think NHS Managers would welcome a more nuanced approach to the data rather than it being used to beat them up.
So, in conclusion, I would be interested to hear from people – is the 4 hour target what we should be focusing resources on? Should we be looking at other places to make additional investment? And just how useful are the current targets in improving patient care, experience and outcomes?