NHS workforce and the reality distortion field.

The process of designing the first Apple Macintosh computer in the early 1980s was an arduous one. The exacting demands of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs resulted in his employees and colleagues describing a ‘reality distortion field’ around him and the people who came into his orbit, within which the impossible became possible. Rectangles with rounded corners when the processor couldn’t draw a circle? No problem. A device with a footprint smaller than a phone book when everything else was three times this size? OK. Shave half a minute off an already streamlined boot process? Yeah, we can do that.

Jobs was able to bridge the gulf between expectation and reality by the clarity of his idea assisted by the sheer force of his personality, his drive, his obsession and a large dose of behaviour one might describe as bullying.

In today’s NHS we see a huge gulf between expectation and reality. Amongst other laudable aspirations NHS England [NHSE] expects to eliminate elective waits of over 65 weeks by March 2024 and increase diagnostic activity to 120% of pre-pandemic levels by April 2023. There will be improved cancer waiting times and outcomes, delivery of 50 million more GP appointments, upgraded maternity services and more, all delivered within a balanced budget.

And yet as I write, emergency departments are full to overflowing and secondary care is snarled up as social care cannot take discharges. High cost resources like theatres stand idle as hospitals grind to a halt. Primary care is drowning in demand. Much infrastructure is ageing. Estate is frequently tired, cramped and unfit for purpose. In this context, a reality distortion field with the metaphorical power of a black hole is required to make NHSE’s objectives seem even remotely achievable.

There are things that can be done: waste can be reduced and unnecessary bureaucracy eliminated; skill mix can be improved and workforce better deployed; estate can be upgraded flexibly to allow for new ways of working; services can be made more responsive to the needs of the people the NHS serves. Perhaps demand or public and political expectation can be managed. Maybe artificial intelligence or other technocratic solutions can finally deliver on their promise. We can refresh our NHS and make it comparable again with the best of our neighbouring nations.

To achieve all this requires money. This is necessary but insufficient. It also requires people.

Without a motivated, engaged, enthusiastic, driven workforce, recovering from the current crisis will be impossible. It’s the staff of the NHS and social care sector who identify the blockages and inefficiencies and create the solutions needed to improve at all levels: from district nursing team to quaternary hospital service, from clinic to Integrated Care Board. This is not a new concept: Kaizen methodology with continuous improvement driven by all staff is well established in business and healthcare. It is the staff who deliver.

Jobs recognised the importance of people in delivering his vision. He surrounded himself with people he described as his ‘A’ team. They achieved what they did because while he was a martinet character, difficult to work with, prone to bouts of anger, rudeness and extreme condescension he was also inspiring, he imbued loyalty and belief. People wanted to work for him, to deliver for him.

Given the strong vocational ethos in the NHS workforce, it should be easy to motivate its staff. But instead I perceive a disillusionment and learned helplessness that I have never known before. This is corrosive to initiative and problem solving. Motivating the workforce means paying people appropriately, recognising that pay and compensation have a salient effect on morale and on the recruitment of new colleagues and the retention of old ones. It means publishing a long overdue workforce strategy. It means listening, and understanding the daily frustrations that erode professionalism and vocational drive. It means appreciating that working in ageing buildings with ageing equipment will inevitably breed apathy. It means transformative investment.

But more than this the NHS needs a transformative vision, akin to that seen at its inception. This means having the bravery and honesty to start a public discourse on how to fund the NHS and social care long term: what we can (or choose to) afford as a country and what we cannot (or choose not to). It means confronting difficult policy decisions about cost-effectiveness and service rationing with public, professionals and industry. It means addressing both demand for- and supply of- healthcare. Everyone I know in the NHS recognises the fact that we cannot go on as we are spending more and more on increasingly marginal outcomes.

And this is where the reality distortion field can help: because with the development of a transformative vision and a clear commitment to transformative investment I believe the NHS’s staff will deliver the solutions required. It has happened before and can happen again. Even before the money flows, the idea that the government understands and is committed to action will empower the workforce. It will allow the distortion field to develop and the gulf between expectation and reality to be bridged. But until the vision is developed and the investment begins there will be no reality distortion in the NHS. Just a grim reality.

Where might the vision come from? It’s clear not from our current government who seem to only have a wish-list of near-future outcomes expedient to help with their prospects at the next general election. To me, the only option seems to be a long term collaborative effort across successive Parliaments and political ideologies and involving all public, private, patient and professional stakeholders to co-create it. Whether there is the political will, executive structure or inspiring leader to facilitate this remains to be seen. Steve Barclay is not Steve Jobs.