Good sense on the NHS

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Harriet Sergeant's article in Saturday's Daily Mail said almost everything that needs to be said about the current state of Britain's National Health Service. I heartily recommend reading the whole thing. In the meantime, here are a few edited highlights...

On public sector inefficiency:

But how on earth will it cope with the exploding number of elderly patients and the costly new procedures and treatments coming on to the market? The answer, says the health think tank the King's Fund, is to increase productivity in the NHS. But over the past decade, it fell by almost 4 per cent. (Over the same time, it rose by almost 23 per cent in the private sector).

How could this be?

I had not realised how costly the actual structure of the NHS is until I sat in on a hospital board meeting. Making sure the hospital complied with the latest government initiatives dominated the agenda. We didn't discuss patients, improving care, saving money or any issue relating to the hospital. The focus was on the bureaucratic process. The initiatives did not come cheap. The board has to prove to the DoH it is complying. So, for nearly every new initiative, the hospital appoints a manager, often on £50,000 to £80,000 a year - not to mention a secretary - to collect the all-important data that must then be submitted to the Department of Health.

The result?

The effect of this is clear. One consultant calculated the proportion of managers, administrators and support staff to nurses in the NHS is 41/2 times greater than in private hospitals, which are not subject to the government initiatives.

Why doesn't someone do something about it?

I spoke to one non-executive director who has a career in trouble-shooting ailing companies and who was astounded by the attitude of his local hospital. With only a cursory look at the books, he announced he could save £200,000 just by good accounting. The response he got? 'It was as if I was speaking Ancient Greek.' His ideas were dismissed as not applicable in a service funded by the Government. Worse, the hospital's chief executive feared that an investigation might expose failings and leave him vulnerable to political interference.

The real problem:

The problems with NHS finances are bound up with the problems of the institution itself. It was designed to be state- owned, centrally planned, financed and run. Until we engage with that basic premise, the NHS will continue to be inefficient and expensive. And we'll see more hospitals closed and front-line staff cut. It is clear to me that we can no longer afford this top-down approach. But where do we go from here?

The solution:

I believe that instead of devising its own solutions to problems, the Government should cease to micro-manage our healthcare. Instead, it should be creating the opportunities for individuals and companies, inside and outside the NHS, to come up with the most efficient and cost-effective solutions, with the Government's role as strictly regulatory.

I really couldn't agree more...