I have written to the current Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, about my concerns about the proposed policy to abolish GP geographical boundaries. To my first email, I received a non-reply masquerading as a reply and so I sent a second email. The reply to this second email was no better than the first and in fact covered much the same ground as the first reply. So I have emailed him again today. (I have sent similar emails to NHS England and the CQC; NHS England’s reply was wholly inadequate so I have written to them again).
The replies I have received so far have limited themselves to describing the structure and process of the Pilot (which ran from April 2012 to April 2013), and the fact that an ‘independent evaluation’ would be made, and sent to the relevant bodies, including the GPC and NHS England (who have inherited the responsibility for implementing (or not) this policy).
I have been sceptical about this policy from the beginning, and my scepticism has if anything grown over time. The policy sounds attractive at first sight, but to anyone who knows how general practice in the UK works (its ecology), the policy does not make sense. The Department of Health so far have promoted this policy assiduously, ignoring the problems and risks. The 2010 ‘consultation’ was a PR exercise, structured in such a way so as to get the desired result, a New Labour ‘dodgy dossier’. The politicians and Department of Health have since used the ‘results’ of this rigged consultation to continue to push for this policy.
The Pilot structure did not actually test the policy itself in any true sense. I wondered how the evaluation would be structured: I thought it likely that it would avoid evaluating the policy itself.
I contacted Professor Nicholas Mays of The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Director of the Policy Research Unit in Policy Innovation Research who were commissioned to carry out the evaluation. I asked Professor Mays if I could see the ‘spec’ the Department of Health had sent them; he did not have such a document, but sent me the Evaluation of GP practice choice pilots, Proposal, 14 May 12 that he had submitted to the Department of Health in response to their request. He suggested I contact the Department of Health about the specification and so on. What I found out was that the Proposal was the result of a meeting between Department of Health officials (I do not know how many) and Professor Mays (I do not know if other members of the Policy Research Unit were present). The Pilot was discussed at this meeting, and the Proposal resulted from this discussion. The meeting was not minuted. So no written ‘spec’.
I read through the Proposal and it confirmed my fears. The evaluation was designed to assess the Pilot rather than the policy. This sentence is from the first paragraph, under the heading ‘Rationale’:
“According to the Department of Health, 75% of patients who responded to a recent consultation on GP choice made it clear that they wanted greater ability to register with a practice of their choice irrespective of its location.”
This is the ‘consultation’ which I say is rigged. Has Professor Mays read the consultation documents and assessed how this ‘75% of patients’ was engineered?
Further along in the Rationale section is the following:
“People able to access GP services in the pilot areas will have greater choice and flexibility about the GP practice that provides their personal care. It will mean patients are able to register close to work, close to a relative they care for or even close to a child’s school.”
This detail, ‘even close to a child’s school’, bears further scrutiny. It was one of the avowed benefits of the pilot (and therefore the policy) in the Department of Health’s media launch in December 2011. I wonder if the evaluation will scrutinise this detail. Will it ask if this detail, registering with a practice near a child’s school, actually makes sense? What benefit accrues from this? How does it work? Are there any risks? Did Professor Mays’ team ask these questions, or did they just take this as a given?
I replied to Professor Mays as follows (19/10/13):
“I have now read through your Proposal for the Evaluation of GP practice choice pilots. It confirms what I feared. Your evaluation does not actually scrutinise the policy itself. I am not criticising you or your team but I think the DH has given you a brief which means that you avoid asking some very basic questions. I am sure that you have done good, thorough work, and I am sure you will come up with some interesting and useful insights; but it is likely that your ‘evaluation’ will miss the basic, fundamental flaws of this policy. These flaws are not exposed, revealed, by the ‘pilot’.
I attach my Submission the the Health Select Committee of May 2013. It outlines what I see as the main problems, I hope in a clear way. I suggest you and your team read this document.
What I am saying is that this policy has been promoted without taking into account the problems, the side effects, the unintended consequences, and it would appear that this has been done intentionally, wilfully. When thalidomide was launched in the late 50’s, it was marketed as a wonder drug, and there were real benefits. But there were also very considerable problems, which emerged with time.
Your evaluation will, by its very design, concentrate on the benefits of thalidomide, the marketing and distribution strategies of thalidomide, but not with the unwanted side effects.
I know what the problems are with this policy, I deal with them on a daily basis, and what I have outlined in my Submission is just the tip of a large iceberg.
I would be happy to meet with you to discuss this further, if you think that would be constructive. I am copying this to the GPC.”
I have not yet been able to see the final report that was sent to NHS England and the GPC. Professor Mays has told me it is being peer reviewed and then will be available, perhaps in the next month or so. Once I have read it, I hope then to meet with Professor Mays to discuss this further.