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Why Conventional Change has to Change: A Better Way to Improve… Part 2

Albert EinsteinYesterday I outlined the problems inherent within conventional approaches and thinking about change management. All too often conventional approaches result in no or little positive change for either service users or taxpayers. Albert Einstein was right: to solve problems and improve our thinking has to change. Indeed, real improvement comes through learning by doing and reflecting on these results. It must also be rooted in research that provides data-driven evidence.

Essential to the acquisition of hard-data is knowledge of customer demand that illustrates patterns of need set against the deployment of resources. Good service (as experienced by the customer/patient/service user) always pays, it never costs. The inability to deliver service is paradoxically expensive and the real ‘gold-plating’: it means in the public sector patients or service users receive either too little and then either ‘represent’ to the service or (in the private sector) customers leave altogether.

Conversely, reviewing services from the customer/patient/service user perspective reveals the folly of conventional change management with its preoccupations on activity assumptions, arbitrary plans and make-believe monetary savings which rarely materialise. Improvement begins with adopting a customer mind-set, studying services and putting pre-configured assumptions of what works aside. Use innovative methods to understand how and why services perform the way they do and what it takes to get them better for those that need to use them.

A Better Way to Conceive Improvement

Intelligent change starts with turning convention on its side, researching performance of local NHS and care systems through the external lens of the patient. The way to realise better service and less cost begins with taking a different, horizontal view. Patients flow through healthcare systems.

Adopting a ‘Front-to-Back Thinking’™ mind-set is about recognising that activity and costs are a consequence of what you do not why you do something. Performance improvement comes from studying patient-level demand; analysing the nature of activity that this demand generates and achieving sustainable cost savings through the elimination of activity waste. How well an organisational system meets patient needs should inform both strategy and costs.

Studying patient demand allows for intelligent system and service redesign solutions around cohorts of patients, not pathways. The principal work is two-fold: research and redesign. The former is evidence-informed problem identification through data analysis.

Research is undertaken to understand patient-demand by looking at the ‘what, where, who, why and when’ of their healthcare usage. It is important to recognise here that the requirement is to utilise both quantitative and qualitative research techniques. A common error with many analytical models is to draw linkages between correlation and causation or indeed assert causality as a consequence of data analysis. Data analysis asks ‘what’ questions which need to be linked to demand analysis’s pursuit of ‘why’ to authenticate findings.

This phase entails analysis of time-series consumption and case-mix data; encounter data to understand customer activity and patterns of usage as well as the type, frequency, volumes and predictability of customer demand together with an understanding as the balance in value versus non-value activity. The work provides patient segmentation into meaningful typology groups which forms the foundation for subsequent improvement work.

Redesign implies a set of sequential steps to undertake intelligent improvement activity. Such Improvement must focus on redesigning the care models and systems around patient cohorts, beginning with the ‘vital few’ patients who, although small in number, consume disproportionately large amounts and activity and costs.

It involves using knowledge gleaned in the research phase to undertake prototype service redesign activity. Clarity of the patient purpose is paramount; as is patient-centred performance metrics; redesigned systems, processes and roles; experimentation with operating models and continuous feedback loops to ‘learn to improve and improve to learn’.

Teams of interdisciplinary professionals are assembled and given autonomy to work together first understand and then meet the holistic (medical and non-medical) needs of these patients, who themselves set the boundary. Flexible services and systems are harmonised according to patient need. The role of leaders also changes, from mandatory monitoring in board-level meetings to problem-solving issues that beyond the control and scope of local interdisciplinary teams.

Key skills that are required include medical and technical but extend more importantly to interpersonal, organisational and problem-solving abilities. The focus is on decreasing end-to-end service times, ensuring more work is done right-first-time; reducing or removing activity that adds no value to the patient thereby preventing such patients from boomeranging around the system.

Here the work involves alterations to budgets, roles, measures and, where necessary, technology. Importantly, the purpose is to develop the redesign and determine its anticipated economies through internal base-lining of current performance via patient-level not service-line reporting.

Following the prototype period, leaders make an informed choice about the benefits from adopting the new (systems) design including further roll-out opportunities. This approach is encapsulated in the Consumption Demand Method™ which enables the emergence of better services that act as testing grounds for continuous improvement set against a better understanding of patient demand.

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Delaying the inevitable: a better way to think about delayed transfers of care

DTOCDelayed transfers of care, or ‘DTOC’ as it is colloquially referred to in NHS circles, is an entrenched national problem. It is often claimed that a combination of ‘cultural and structural factors’, an over-reliance in bed-based care and increasing numbers of people with complex conditions moving between providers is causing undue strain on the system. It is one of the principal issues said to affect the performance of A&E units up and down the country.

DTOC has a big impact across the whole healthcare economy in terms of activity, costs and reputation. It is generally accepted to centre on acute services for older people. But the question I pose is: by focusing on the acute are we concentrating efforts on the symptom or the cause? Every problem presents an opportunity. Every challenge requires an intention to signal a desire to improve through thinking and acting differently. DTOC is a symptom of a dysfunctional health care economy.

Concerted effort and numerous attempts have been made, over several years, to successfully address DTOC. These initiatives include the usual list of initiatives including ‘Appropriate Care for Everyone Programmes’ (without ever defining what appropriate in this context means), QIPP projects, engagement and public education packages and Older People’s Joint Commissioning Strategies.

Yet, successive schemes fail to impact on DTOC as they compartmentalise the problem through focusing on urgent care or complex care rather than understanding the root cause of the problems. The impact of these actions on improving DTOC performance remains stubbornly low. Initiatives tend to adopt a reactive and reductionist approach to resolving the problem.

The principal reasons for failure requires detailed study but can be summarised by adopting a (silo) service-first not patient-perspective and focusing on activity reduction and discharge pathways. The causes of waste or ‘system limitations’ affecting DTOC include:

  • Outsourcing of adult social care provision
  • Multiple patient assessments
  • Eligibility criteria in community and social care
  • Different organisational budgets, performance metrics and ways of working
  • Counter-productive financial incentives across the system
  • Service fragmentation such as a ‘medically fit’ focus
  • Alleged risk-averse attitudes amongst some clinical staff
  • An efficiency rather than effectiveness focus on reducing length of stay
  • A target mentality which limits attempts to understand in order to improve
  • Understanding the problem from the organisational perspective

‘Pooled budgets’ for services used by older people offers hope to reduce rates but only if it is accompanied by a change in commissioning and operational thinking and ways of working that extends beyond joint ‘commissioning of care’.

‘Current DTOC performance’ is monitored on a regular basis through weekly returns taken on one day each week from local acute trusts. The whole thing resembles the game-show Play Your Cards Right. Snapshot analysis shows the weekly rates of DTOC can vary with some weeks being ‘higher’ and others ‘lower’.

All of which leaves me with more questions than answers, and those questions are – what does this tell us? How does this information help us understand to improve? Does this ‘activity counting’ help develop knowledge and understanding around the patients who experience delays and the type and nature of activity this creates which leads to costs? What has operationally changed as a result of monitoring? How do we know if this has been effective? Or like the game show – is it simply a game of chance? Such ‘activity monitoring’ is as counter-productive as it is distorting. Improvement work must take place in the work not in meeting rooms.

I have recently completed a piece of work looking at the problem. I hope the study will provide the platform to overcome successive false starts, identify root causes and design a healthcare system to reduce DTOC levels through better understanding patient demand. But that, of course, is dependent on the willingness of local NHS leaders to adopt a different mindset.

It begins with adopting a different patient-centred perspective and intelligently analysing the problem. This work seeks to take a holistic approach and understand it from the patient perspective. It asks how many patients cause what type, patterns, predictability and volume of activity which results in costs. This way of thinking and acting is the means to achieve intelligent change leading to sustainable performance improvement.

What you discover is that the DTOC problem is NOT a general acute service for older people problem; hospitals deal with the consequences of the issue. When you compare A&E waiting time against DTOC rates it reveals different sets of challenges. One lot are external system problems where the acute provider is trying to deal with the consequences of fragmented care. But there are also internal system issues such as the impact of the 4-hour waiting time target which distorts performance and paradoxically helps make the problem worse (see my previous blog on the deficiencies with the A&E waiting time target).

As ever with healthcare, DTOC is a ‘vital few’ challenge – small numbers of patients consuming disproportionately high levels of activity, capacity and resources. For example, 1,700 patients admitted suffered with a DTOC over a 12 month period. The length of stay from their emergency admissions contributed to a third of the overall bed capacity of the hospital. Moreover, the real costs of DTOC are much higher than simply a blinkered focus on ‘excess bed days’ would allow for (an abstract and unhelpful financial ‘tariff’ distinction). Less than 2,000 people cost this particular secondary care system over £11 million every year. How much of this money is well spent? We simply don’t know.

But the small numbers show that the problem is predictable and therefore manageable.  It also represents a big opportunity providing healthcare leaders have the courage to make profound changes in the way we commission and provide healthcare services. To improve (and thereby reduce) DTOC there is a need to better understand patients and what services they already consume to design more effective medical and non-medical services around their care needs.

The issues affecting DTOC are complex. The mistake often made with improvement efforts is to try and cut through or standardise complexity. Wrong. As W Ross Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety teaches us the most intelligent way to deal with variety is design systems and services against that variety. In healthcare the way to undertake this is to understand and then design against patient-level demand. This will be effective and if you think about it, if you are effective at something; by definition you will be efficient.