Carl Heneghan: The irrational rationing of healthcare

NHSreality agrees, and feels rationing must be discussed as only then will we reach agreement on the best way.

From the BMJ (Carl Heneghan – professor of EBM at the University of Oxford, director of CEBM, and a GP.) – The irrational rationing of healthcare

Image result for rationing cartoon

“The rationing process in the NHS is messy,” said the King’s Fund. On this I think we can agree. Just look at what is happening with IVF services to understand the messiness with commissioning and the rationing of health services.

Croydon’s Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) has decided to save over £800,000 a year by no longer funding IVF. This is despite 77% of people consulted opposing the decision. Meanwhile, across Scotland three cycles of IVF are provided on the NHS, ending local variation. Over the border in England, 80% of CCGs fail to commission three cycles, despite this being official NICE guidance, whilst in Northern Ireland and Wales one and two cycles are offered respectively.

The King’s Fund argues that some rationing is inevitable; but we must avoid the “fudges” seen with commissioning IVF. Whose job is it then to sort messes like these out?

It is not NICE doing the rationing; they recommend that women under the age of 40 years, who have not conceived after 2 years of regular unprotected intercourse, should be offered three full cycles of IVF Individual CCGs decide to ration services through stricter criteria, thus introducing local variation and postcode lotteries. CCGs therefore decide what to fund based on local needs—hopefully following proper consideration of the evidence—national priorities and NICE guidance.

How and what CCGs ration is also informed, to some extent, by how their predecessors (the Primary Care Trusts) reduced spending on low value clinical treatments. A 2011 Audit Commission briefing, identified Croydon PCT as a forerunner in identifying low value treatments. The Croydon List, as it became known, included procedures where cost-effective alternatives should be tried first, interventions with a small benefit or risk balance done in mild cases, and cosmetic or ineffective procedures. PCTs identified some 250 different procedures with limited clinical value, but no single, nationwide list was collated.

Identifying low value interventions became part of the remit of NHS Right Care Programme, yet they advocate using NICE guidance. Consequently, CCGs develop their own approaches, often incorporating the Croydon List of low priority treatments.

Stopping low value interventions in the NHS must be a good thing; but IVF doesn’t meet the Croydon criteria and wasn’t on their list. IVF remains an easy target and it is likely that many CCGs will follow Croydon’s lead as they try to save money.

Once CCGs refuse to pay then market forces become the dominant factor in accessing healthcare. Leaving rationing to the market, however, is deeply troubling on many levels: in America, many individuals go without health insurance, without prescriptions, forego preventive care and often wait when sick because they cannot afford the market cost of healthcare.

If we want to bring an end to postcode variation, remove market forces, and reduce irrational rationing, we need to boost funding. We also need to be more open and explicit, as a national health service, as to what we will fund, what we won’t fund and what evidence we will use to stop low value interventions.

Carl Heneghan is professor of EBM at the University of Oxford, director of CEBM, and a GP.

His research interests span chronic diseases, diagnostics, use of new technologies, and investigative work with The BMJ on drugs and devices that you might stumble across in the media. He is also a founder of the alltrials.net campaign.

Competing interests: Carl Heneghan jointly runs the Evidence Live conference with The BMJ and is a founder of the AllTrials campaign. He has received expenses and payments for his media work. He has received expenses from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US FDA, and holds grant funding from the NIHR, the National School of Primary Care Research, the Wellcome Trust, and the WHO. He has published previously on IVF ‘Add-on treatments’ in the BMJ.

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This entry was posted in A Personal View, Rationing, Stories in the Media on by .

About Roger Burns - retired GP

I am a retired GP and medical educator. I have supported patient participation throughout my career, and my practice, St Thomas; Surgery, has had a longstanding and active Patient Participation Group (PPG). I support the idea of Community Health Councils, although I feel they should be funded at arms length from government. I have taught GP trainees for 30 years, and been a Programme Director for GP training in Pembrokeshire 20 years. I served on the Pembrokeshire LHG and LHB for a total of 10 years. I completed an MBA in 1996, and I along with most others, never had an exit interview from any job in the NHS! I completed an MBA in 1996, and was a runner up for the Adam Smith prize for economy and efficiency in government in that year. This was owing to a suggestion (St Thomas' Mutual) that practices had incentives for saving by being allowed to buy rationed out services in the following year.

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