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Archive for the ‘PH Spending’ Category

Dr John Middleton, Director of Public Health for Sandwell and FPH Vice President, email vpPolicy@fph.org.uk

On first reading, the health bill seems silent on public health roles in the health service. More than 300 public health specialists and consultants who work in health service public health are justifiably nervous about what the future public health system holds for them. In a set of reforms establishing Public Health England and local-authority-based public health directors, they could have expected some acknowledgement. There is what we expected about the other two domains of public health: health protection and health improvement.

Fortunately the subtext of the bill holds much more hope for public health in health services. It confers duties of engagement, partnership, quality and reducing inequalities on the NHS Commissioning Board and GP commissioners.  Even Monitor needs public health – if it is to create national tariffs that genuinely reflect the most effective interventions delivered most efficiently rather than reward incompetence, gaming and worsening of inequalities in health services.

Health-services-related public health is arguably the most technically exacting facet of public health and certainly the most contentious. It requires rigorous knowledge of healthcare interventions and epidemiological and interpretative skills are needed to show what works and what does harm. As the margins of benefit from new drugs and treatments get smaller, careful analysis becomes ever more necessary. Assessing complex healthcare data is crucial activity – truly a matter of life and death – not an exercise of faceless bureaucracy or unnecessary management cost.  Some patients will die when we do decide to fund their high cost – and high risk – drug.

These funding decisions cannot be left to the newly emasculated NICE – implementation is local. The best national policies flounder if they are not locally understood and implemented.

Health services public health is not always popular – rationing decisions invariably get unravelled in appeals, press examination, in legal dispute and judicial review. There may be political expectation that big healthcare private organisations will bring the skills to evaluate healthcare for GP commissioners in the future. This has hardly been borne out by the   hospital deaths misinformation, or the quasi-scientific risk-stratification products on offer.

The return of public health to local authorities holds the welcome recognition of where the major influences on health still are.  Many of us cite McKeown’s decline of mortality since 1840 due to clean water, sanitation, better housing and working conditions, better nutrition and smaller family size. The big environmental challenges, work with social care on reablement and personalisation, and the need to reduce health inequalities are live issues for public health in local authorities. Twenty-first century diseases such as obesity, relationship and behavioural problems and addictions also lend themselves to big public health responses from a local-authority base.  But equally relevant in the 21st century is the health service contribution to life expectancy gain – Bunker, Frasier and Mostellar’s Millbank review concluded that about 30% of the life-expectancy improvement since the NHS came along was due to healthcare factors. The capacity for health services to do harm as well as good is immense, and the need to get better value for money in healthcare is ever more relevant.

There is growing recognition of the need for health promotion or ‘lifestyle’ interventions in healthcare. Acute services are seeing it as part of QUIPP and many are instigating ‘stop before the op’ smoking cessation programmes. GPs also increasingly have opportunities to refer to food and fitness services, psychological therapies and addiction-brief interventions. It is easy to see how GP commissioning should be involved in commissioning alcohol services – jointly with the local authority DsPH – to cover all preventive and therapeutic interventions. Less easy, but just as relevant in reducing hospital dependency, would be joint commissions on fit-for-work programmes, welfare rights and housing improvement.

With hospitals being more dangerous places than roads these days, health systems need public health skills more than ever. More than 30 consultants and specialists in public health work in acute hospital trusts. Hospitals, and health centres, are outlets for health information, signposts and venues for health promoting activity and potential exemplars of health improvement for staff, patients and visitors. Business choices for hospital and community trusts should be informed by good health-needs analysis, assessment of best evidence of effectiveness and evaluation. Care pathways should all include ‘lifestyle’ programmes as a key choice in the pathway– for example, before bariatric or vascular surgery.  This is equally relevant in GP commissioning. For the first time we are beginning to have good data about morbidity and about quality of care in general practice. These data have to inform the joint strategic needs assessments. But they also have to be interpreted and used in primary care.

Public health specialists need to be embedded in organisations because that is the only way their advice will be taken on – consultancies we all take or leave. There should be consultant level public health expertise in all arms of the new health system – including the NHS Commissioning Board and Monitor. But we need also a coherent base on which all the public health training and development is founded – only Public Health England appears capable of that. There are encouraging signs that GPs and others in the new NHS are recognising the need for healthcare public health – you won’t find it in the health bill.

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By Alan Maryon-Davis

The public health white paper promises to ‘improve the health of the poorest fastest.’ Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has said that closing the health inequalities gap is a top priority, echoing the Marmot Review – ‘more must be done to tackle the causes of the causes of ill-health.’ To this end he has set up a cross-government committee on public health and has proposed a shift of responsibility for health improvement onto local government, along with a ‘ring-fenced’ public health budget. Joined-up at the top and bottom.

So far, so good. Many would agree that local government is the natural home for the public health and wellbeing agenda. It’s where the big local decisions about social determinants take place and where a properly coordinated approach could really pay off. Localism in action.

The flipside of course is that the Coalition’s Health Secretary, with one deft move, will be off-loading this most stubborn of health challenges. Despite massive investment by the previous government, the inequalities gap has continued to widen. In taking on this agenda, local authorities might find themselves accepting a poisoned chalice.

If that was apparent before the Chancellor’s spending review, how much more so it is now we know the breadth and extent of Osborne’s austerity drive. Massive cuts in benefits and public services, soaring unemployment, a deep-frozen NHS and the rise in VAT, all add up to millions more people in difficulty – a situation which, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, is bound the hit the poorest hardest.

We know that maternity problems, infant ill-health, low uptake of childhood immunisation, poor oral health, child and adolescent mental ill-health, accidents and violence, depression and suicide, cancer diagnosis and heart disease, and the debilitating dependency of old age are all strongly linked to social deprivation. We can surely expect a huge upsurge in demand on the NHS – at a time when services are already overstretched.

As ever, it will be the disadvantaged who will miss out. The health inequalities gap is bound to widen and no amount of shifting the public health deckchairs, as envisaged in the public health white paper, can stop it. Indeed the distraction and planning blight that comes with the wider NHS reorganisation laid out in the Health & Social Care Bill can only add to the barriers faced by disadvantaged people.

The Health Secretary no doubt sees all this, but is determined to push his changes through, despite a barrage of opposition from many quarters. His view is that, whilst things will be tough in the early years, there are green Elysian Fields beyond. In the meantime, we can help him to get it right by responding to the White Paper consultations and cajoling our MPs to amend the Bill as it goes through Parliament.

A key issue is the ring-fenced budget for public health, particularly for the health improvement element that will be passed to local authorities. We don’t yet know the size of the ring-fenced allocation at national level, although a figure of about £4billion has been bandied about. That sounds a big number – but by the time the many millions have been taken out to support the work that the Health Protection Agency is currently doing, and the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse, and national campaigns, and various other central initiatives, the amount distributed to local level will be much truncated.

And then that local pot gets divvied up between the Public Health England unit, public health support to GP consortia, prevention activity by GPs, immunisation, screening, drugs and alcohol, child health checks, health visiting, etc etc – the list goes on. So, what will be left to hand over to local authorities to tackle the health and wellbeing agenda? Not a lot, I suspect. Local authorities (and their Directors of Public Health) will be taking on a huge added responsibility with very little resource to throw at it. More for less indeed.

And those LAs struggling to improve their health outcomes because of challenging demographics could find themselves further disadvantaged by the Health Minister’s proposed ‘health premium’ scheme. The intention is to reward only those LAs who ‘make significant progress’ towards better outcomes, including reduced health inequalities. But those of us who have worked with multi-deprived populations know how difficult this can be, despite heroic efforts, without major demographic change. Although we’re told the health premium assessment would take deprivation into account, there’s every chance that yet again it would be the more disadvantaged populations who miss out on any extra funding. So much for improving the health of the poorest fastest. No, as bright ideas go, I can’t help thinking this isn’t one of them.

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By Alan Maryon-Davis

There’s plenty of Christmas cheer in the public health white paper. Warming words about the importance of protecting and improving health.

A bulging sackful of goodies – health improvement to be a statutory duty for local authorities; directors of public health (DsPH) to be embedded in local government where they truly belong; a new national public health service (Public Health England) to extend the kindly hand of the Department of Health to local level; a gift-wrapped ring-fenced budget for public health. Even a heavenly choir chanting about improving the health of the poorest fastest. It could all be straight out of Dickens.

But let’s not reach for the mulled claret and wassail too soon – there are a few reindeer in the room. For instance, the white paper says there will be ‘minimum constraints on how local government decides to fulfil its public health role and spend its new budget.’ So will DsPH have any real clout in the new set-up? Will they be on a par with chief officers reporting direct to the council CEO? What influence will they have over the public health budget? Just how ‘ring-fenced’ will it really be – and for how long? We’ll have to wait for further guidance next year – but it looks as though councils will have pretty free rein.

Then there’s the crucial issue of joined-upness. How effective will the linkage be between local government, GP commissioners, the local PHE health protection unit, and other stakeholders? We know the instrument will be the local Health and Wellbeing Board, using the Joint Strategic Needs Assessment as a blueprint – but how well will these boards work? We’ve had patchy experience with Local Strategic Partnerships. The whole new public health edifice will stand or fall on how robustly these boards are set up. Again the blueprint is forthcoming.

And no details yet on how local authorities will be rewarded on their achievement of health outcomes – or not, as the case may be. The public health outcomes framework is still being worked on, as is the reward system. But the metrics of public health are notoriously complex and shifting. Populations don’t stay still. Mortality-based outcomes are far too blunt and sluggish to be used for real-time monitoring and performance rating. Health behaviours such as smoking, drinking, diet and exercise are too much influenced by externalities. Even risk factor prevalence has its problems. It would take an Einstein to come up with a fair approach to dishing out the ‘health premium’ for good results.

The outcome of improving the health of the poorest fastest is a case in point. As the ex-DPH of a deprived inner-city borough I particularly worry about those areas struggling to reduce health inequalities. Even in times of plenty the gap remained stubbornly persistent – the better-off have always tended to improve their health faster than the have-nots. If anything, the government’s drastic cuts look set to hit the poorest hardest, with negative consequences for health. It would be cruelly unfair to penalise local authorities for failing to close their inequalities gap when the cards are so heavily stacked against them. That would surely be an act of Scrooge-like heartlessness in these hard times. Dickens would turn in his grave.

This blog post is also available on the HSJ website

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Plenary Session 4 at the Faculty of Public Health annual conference, Wednesday 7 July.

Chaired by Adam Brimelow (BBC Health Correspondent) and panel members Prof. Julian Le Grand (LSE and former No 10 health advisor), Anna Coote (Head of Social Policy, new economics foundation), Dr Anna Dixon (Director of Policy, King’s Fund) and Dr Paul Edmonson-Jones (Director of Public Health and Primary Care, Portsmouth City Teaching PCT).

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By Dr Steve George, FPH Vice-President

Andrew Lansley’s commitment to public health, brought out in his interview with the Society Guardian (14/04), is welcome, but prompts a number of questions. The Conservative party’s health spokesman suggests that the Department of Health would be renamed the Department of Public Health, and that it would be given a new focus on prevention of illness. But if this was to translate into a genuine improvement in the health of the public, much more than the name of the body responsible for health would need to change.

Fundamentally, much of the Guardian interview is still focused on health care, or what might more aptly be called ‘illness care’. The public, and the politicians who represent them, must grasp the fact that ‘illness care’ has at best a tiny influence on the health of the public. Only after this realisation can there be any genuine change in the health of the public.

History has shown us that past improvements in health have appeared more as a by-product of a rising standard of living, rather than as a result of conscious policies to improve health. Certainly clinical medicine provides reassurance. It provides care and comfort. It provides treatment for acute emergencies. In certain instances it can provide cures, but these instances affect only a small proportion of people with morbidity. The USA and the UK have approximately equal life expectancies, despite the fact that the UK spends per head of population around a quarter of what is spent in the USA on health services.

So what about the proposed Department of Public Health? Lansley pledges that under a Conservative government patients would be given unprecedented detail on “good and not so good care.” Would this improve public health? Not a bit – even if patients learned the skills of adjusting results for case-mix – the mix of patients treated by a hospital/unit – and other confounding factors that are the bread and butter of people working in mainstream NHS public health.

What about the Tories’ proposal that hospitals would be paid variable sums based upon the quality and results of treatment? Would this produce improvements in public health, assuming that those results were interpreted correctly and correct measures of “quality” were in place? No, for the same reasons as above. It would almost certainly, however, make those responsible for hospital budgets reluctant to attempt to treat a patient likely to produce a poor result, and thereby drive down their tariff. And it’s by no means clear how a policy that would inevitably result in hospitals with poorer facilities and less well trained doctors receiving less funding would accord with the Tories’ promised moratorium on hospital closures.

What might improve public health is channelling money into improving social infrastructure in socially disadvantaged areas and reducing income inequalities. But neither seems likely, given that those inequalities have worsened over decades under successive governments of whatever political colour.

What we are likely to see instead is another health service reorganisation, and I’ll end with a quote often attributed to the Roman orator Gaius Petronius Arbiter:

“We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.”

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As expected, all three major political parties have this week made strong references to public, or, as they most commonly term it, preventive health in their election manifestos.

Ahead of the General Election on 6 May, the Conservative party have, at least superficially, made the most explicit commitment, with their pledge to re-title the signs outside Richmond House “The Department for Public Health”. As we already learnt in their draft manifesto back in January, they intend to rechannel public health funding to the most deprived areas, offering a financial “premium” to target health inequalities. Confusion reigns as to how this might be implemented, and the manifesto in general is long on the whats, but short on the hows, but the proposals are certainly attractively packaged, at least for the floating voter.

The present incumbents have of course to defend their record, as well as identify areas where they could do better. Labour face the accusation, made in the Tory manifesto, that inequality has increased on their watch. An interesting spin on this was printed by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, but Labour’s manifesto is relatively weak on how they would further level the playing field. The author of the Labour manifesto, Ed Miliband had previously trailed the idea of universal free school meals, something that FPH had also touted in our manifesto. This pledge is somewhat toned down in the manifesto proper, instead promising to “trial free school meals for all primary school children in pilot areas across the country … [to] thoroughly test the case for universal free school meals, with the results available by autumn 2011”.

Most commentators agree that the NHS has improved under Labour, (at least enough for the Conservative party to want to claim themselves to be the rightful heirs of Bevan’s legacy) but their commitment to the preventive agenda is vague at best. Citing their current (and, in some quarters, heavily criticised) Change4Life social marketing campaign, and the smoking ban as evidence for the defence is fine, but where are the plans to make a healthy “future fair for all”?

The Liberal Democrats, with their eminently sensible and intelligent spokesperson Norman Lamb, possibly have the most tangible pledges for the nation’s health. The cynic might of course argue that they can afford to make such idealistic and resource-intensive promises, unlikely as they are to assume the reigns of power. Nonetheless, persuading a party to nail its colours to the mast of minimum alcohol pricing is no mean feat, particularly when their colleagues north of the border are more reticent to declare themselves. The Lib Dems also follow the Conservative’s lead in linking financial incentives to addressing inequalities, “linking payments to health boards (as they would rename Primary Care Trusts) and General Practitioners more directly to prevention measures”. Lamb has talked previously about what essentially amounts to a beefed-up Quality and Outcomes Framework (QOF), paying GPs for achievements rather than measurements.

A curate’s egg for public health then from all the parties; whichever the colour of the incoming government, they still have work to do to clarify how they will improve the nation’s health, particularly in financially straitened times.

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“Now is not the time for health cuts” –  Rachael Jolley, FPH Head of Policy, on Andy Burnham’s proposed public health campaign cuts in the Guardian online.

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