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.

Moral hazard in a failing service

I go to see a woman on the ward to tell her that, again, her procedure is cancelled. I see, written in the resigned expression on her face, the effort and emotional energy it has taken to get herself here: arrangements she made about the care of her household, relatives providing transport from her home over 70 miles away and now unexpectedly called to pick her up. A day waiting, the anxiety building as a 9am appointment became 10, then lunchtime, then afternoon. The tedious arrangements to be necessarily repeated: COVID swabs, blood tests, anticoagulation bridging. All wasted.

She smiles at me as I apologise. She is kind, rather than angry, understanding rather than belligerent. And yet she has every right to be furious. This is, after all, the second time this has happened. And she knows as well as I do that my attempts at assurance that we will prioritise her bed for the next appointment she is offered are as empty and meaningless as they were last time she heard them.

Such stories are the everyday reality for patients and clinicians within the NHS, repeated thousands of times a day across the country, each one a small quantum of misery. At least my patient got an appointment. Some don’t. Ask anyone with a condition that is not life threatening or somehow subject to media scrutiny or an arbitrary governmental target about their access to planned hospital care and you will likely get a snort of derision or a sob of hopelessness. Benign gynaecological conditions (for example) can be debilitating but frequently slip to the bottom of the priority list, suffered in private silence, without advocates able to leverage the rhetorical and emotional weight of a cancer diagnosis.

This is not all COVID related. Yes, COVID has made things worse but really all the pandemic has done is cruelly reveal the structural inadequacies that we have been working around in the NHS for years and years. ‘Winter pressures’ have reliably and predictably closed planned care services even if it took until winter 2017 for the NHS to officially recognise this and cancel all elective surgery for weeks. Estate is often old and not fit for purpose. Departmental and ward geography does not allow for the patient separation and flow demanded by modern healthcare. Staffing rotas are stretched to the limit with no redundancy for absence. Old infrastructure and equipment requires inefficient workarounds. Increasing effort goes into Byzantine plans for ‘service continuity’ to deal with operational risks, while the fundamentals remain unaddressed.

Efficiency requires investment. You cannot move from a production line using humans to one using robots without investing in the robots to do the work and the skilled people to run them. You cannot move from an inpatient to an outpatient model of care for a condition without investing in the infrastructure and people to oversee that pathway. You cannot manage planned and unplanned care via a single resource without adversely affecting the efficiency of both. You cannot expect a hugely expensive operating theatre or interventional radiology suite to function productively if the personnel tasked with running it spend a significant proportion of their day juggling cases and staff in an (often vain) attempt to get at least a few patients ready and through the department. Modern healthcare requires many systems to function optimally (or at least adequately) before anything can be done. Expensive resources frequently lie idle when a failure in one process results in the entire patient pathway collapsing.

The moral hazard encountered by people working in this creaking system is huge. How can we feel proud of the service we offer when failure is a daily occurrence? When we, the patient facing front-of-house, are routinely embarrassed by – or apologetic for – the system which we represent. We can retreat into the daily small victories: a patient treated well, with compassion, leaving satisfied; an emergency expertly, efficiently and speedily dealt with; teamwork. But these small victories seem to be less and less consoling as the failures mount. Eventually staff (people after all) lose belief, drive and motivation. Disillusionment breeds diffidence, apathy and disengagement. The service, reliant on motivated and culturally engaged teams, becomes less safe, less caring, less personal and even more inefficient as staff are no longer inclined to work occasionally over and above their job planned activity. A bureaucracy of resource management develops and teams become splintered. Process replaces culture and a credentialed skill-mix replaces trusted professional relationships.

The moral hazard is compounded by the seemingly wilful blindness of our political masters, the holders of the purse strings, to comprehend the size of the problem. Absent any real prospect of improvement, we learn to accept the status-quo, the cancellations, the delay, the waiting lists. And our patients accept this too: how else does one explain their weary stoicism. Meanwhile our leaders cajole us to be more efficient, to embrace new ways of working, to do a lot more with a bit more money. It remains politically expedient to disguise a few percent increase in healthcare revenue spending as ‘record investment’ but I argue that most people working at all levels in the NHS recognise the need for transformative generational investment on a level not seen since the inception of the service. Such investment requires money and money means taxation.

More than that, there needs to be the political bravery to open a considered debate about what we mean by healthcare, where our money is most efficiently targeted and what we, as a society can (or are willing to) afford in amongst other priorities for governmental spending. Shiny new hospitals providing state-of-the-art treatment may make good PR but are meaningless without functional well funded primary care. Investment in complex clinical technologies will not improve our nation’s health if the social determinants of this (poverty, smoking, diet, housing, education, joblessness, social exclusion) remain unaddressed. Such a discourse seems anathema to our current politics with its emphasis on the individual, on technocratic solutions and on the empty promise of being able to have everything we want at minimal personal, environmental or societal cost.

Until our leaders start this debate, and until we, as members of society, understand the arguments and elect politicians to enact its conclusions, ‘our NHS’ will continue to provide sometimes substandard and inefficient care in a service defined by its own introspection rather than by the needs of the community it should serve. Our healthcare metrics will continue to lag behind those of comparator nations. And I will continue to find myself, late in the afternoon, apologising to women and men for the inconvenience and anxiety as I speak to them about cancelling their procedure, hating myself for it but helpless to offer any solution or solace.