I was surprised when the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics in London honored two of my favorite institutions: the National Health Service and the World Wide Web. I was not surprised when LA Times sports writer Diane Pucin posted the following tweet: “For the life of me, though, am still baffled by NHS tribute at opening ceremonies. Like a tribute to United Health Care or something in US.” @swaldman responded to the sports writer with “Well, maybe, if United Health Care were government-run and a source of national pride.”
I was not surprised when Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer of NBC admitted they had no idea why Tim Berners-Lee was being honored by sending out a tweet. Ever since I read his book Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor (HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), Berners-Lee has been one of my heroes. Finally locating my hard copy of the book in the guest bedroom where my son Colin used to sleep, I quickly located the marked passage I was looking for:
“People have sometimes asked me whether I am upset that I have not made a lot of money from the Web. In fact, I made some quite conscious decisions about which way to take my life. These I would not change…. What does distress me, though, is how important a question it seems to be to some.
I’ve had a couple of meetings recently with leading figures in UK health policy – one of them a senior figure at a doctors’ organisation, the other at a private health company – who both talked excitedly about the lessons Britain could learn from the US.
That’s rarer than you might think. Our National Health Service may be cautiously embracing market-led reforms, but there’s still plenty of scepticism about the US’s full-on competitive system, and people here tend to be nervous about citing it as an inspiration.
Still, the two figures I am referring to, both leading players in the British Government’s NHS reform programme, were talking not about US healthcare as a whole, but about one particular organisation with something of a cult following on this side of the Atlantic.
I am referring to Kaiser Permanente, and its ideas are about to become very big over here.
Kaiser is one of those iconic organisations that aren’t just known for what they do, but whose names come to define their particular way of doing things – in Kaiser’s case, managed care.
It is the classic managed care organisation, running all the disparate parts of the local health system as a fully integrated whole, and deftly incentivising doctors to make sure patients receive their care in the part of the health system where it can be delivered most efficiently.
“England and America are two great nations separated by a common language.”
-attributed to both Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw
In 1965 I spent the summer of my third year in medical school at the General Practice Teaching Unit of the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, Scotland because I wanted to learn more about the National Health Service (NHS). My impression then was that both the U.K. and U.S. medical care systems were evolving toward the same end result from very different directions. (1) That viewpoint has been reaffirmed by recent events. Both countries have embarked this past year on significant health care reform. Both countries are seeking to reduce costs, improve quality, become more patient-centered, and invest in health information technology (HIT). In both countries the majority of patients are highly satisfied with the NHS or Medicare and are vigilant about not giving up any of its benefits.
Both health care reform acts are being criticized for being too timid, or too bold, or too incremental, or too radical. The U.K. plan is being attacked by some as a disastrous turn toward privatization while the U.S. plan is “another step toward socialism”, i.e. very little change in the tenor since 1965. Vocal U.K. critics on the left decry the proposed move away from regulation (NHS) toward competition and market-place economics while the vocal U.S. critics on the right warn against more regulation and movement away from reliance on competition and market-place forces.
Increased Primary Care Support
The basic foundation of the NHS has always been General Practice physicians (GPs) who have no hospital privileges and refer all patients needing hospitalization to full-time hospital specialists (Consultants). (2) In 1965, and in 1996, such a separation of outpatient and inpatient medical practice was threatening to community physicians in the U.S. (3) Today it is difficult to recruit primary care physicians (and some specialists) to a community unless the hospital has hospitalists to care for inpatients. The community-based internist in U.S. is now more like the GP in U.K. then ever before, and that is not a bad thing.
The key policy levers enabling this to happen are:
1. The purchaser provider split, with GP commissioning consortia taking the leading role on the purchaser side of the divide.
2. Patient Choice.
3. Competition between a plurality of ‘any willing providers’.
4. Payment by Results with price competition.
5. Patient held budgets.
6. Foundation trusts becoming social enterprises and the abolition of the cap on their private income.
These policies are mutually reinforcing and this is how they will work:
GPs will be formed into GP consortia and will control 80% (£80bn) of the NHS budget to buy in services for their patients from a variety of providers (including FTs, private hospitals and third sector organisations) competing against each other in competitive healthcare market. Market competition will be enforced by applying EU competition law and overseen by the economic regulator, Monitor, as well as the new National Commissioning Board. Money will follow the patients via the Payment by Results (PbR) system. This has traditionally been a fixed pricing system, but the tariffs will now be opened up to price competition (I’ll come back to this).