In 2009 the internal market was abolished in the Welsh NHS. Seven unified Health Boards (and three trusts – Ambulance, Public Health and Velindre cancer services) took over the responsibility of the former 22 Local Health Boards and most of functions of the seven Trusts to both plan and deliver health care for the population resident in their geographical areas.

In the initial phase following the internal market abolition the acute hospital sector seemed to have “captured” the planning process. But as things have matured the Welsh Government has sought to re-balance matters with the introduction of Integrated Medium Term Plans (IMTP).

All NHS organisations are now expected to operate to three yearly IMTPs as part of their planning cycle. The latest framework covers the period 2018-2021 with yearly iterations providing firm plans for the initial year, indicative plans for Year 2 and outline plans for Year 3. At the heart of the process is the creation of a collaborative approach which will be sufficiently robust not only to withstand the continuing pressures of austerity but to deliver real improvement for patients, service users, carers and wider public health.

The planning framework ( http://gov.wales/docs/dhss/publications/171013nhswales-planning-frameworken.PDF ) and the IMTPs continue to be informed by the principles of “Prudential Healthcare” ( http://www.prudenthealthcare.org.uk/ ) and an emerging distinctive Welsh legislative backdrop including the Mental Health Measure (2010), Social Services and Well-being Act (2014), The Well-being of Future Generations Act (2015),  Nurse Staffing Levels Act (2016) and Public Health Act (2017).

The planning and delivery process needs to achieve the “Triple Aim” of improving outcomes, improving the user experience and achieving best value to money supplemented by the Parliamentary Review’s ( http://gov.wales/docs/dhss/publications/180116reviewen.pdf ) recommendation of enriching the well-being, capability and engagement of the health and social care workforce.

There are five priority delivery priorities outlined which represent a real effort to re-balance the Welsh NHS away from its initial over-focus on acute secondary care covering such areas as:-
Prevention
Tackling health inequalities
Primary & community care
Timely access to care
Mental health.

Each of these priorities are important in their own right. The prevention and tackling inequalities agendas acknowledge the social determinants of health but they also re-emphasise the importance of addressing “the inverse care law” which is about how the health service responds to the unequal health experience of people. Access to care is recognised as being both clinically important and a key quality measure of the patient’s experience. And as well as timely access to services the quality agenda requires that patients receive safe, effective, personal and efficient care in an equitable way.

Health boards and trust IMTPs must be the product of collective working that extends from the clinical experience of patients and NHS staff to engaging with a wider range of bodies outside the NHS family. Particular attention must be paid to the plans being developed by the primary care clusters ( http://www.primarycareone.wales.nhs.uk/primary-care-clusters ) as well input from traditional sources such as Public Health Wales. In addition participation in regional and local service boards, as well as bilateral discussions, must be used to co-ordinate planning and delivery with other public bodies such as local government, social care, education and housing.

The governance within the Health Boards and the wider NHS must improve if the planning process is to effectively identify and respond to local need. To date the record is not great. Health boards are not always adept at either identifying service failures or responding effectively to them. The Welsh Government has a clear pathway of escalating intervention when health organisations are struggling but even then improving performance has proven elusive ( http://gov.wales/topics/health/nhswales/escalation/?lang=en ).

The final report of the Parliamentary Review recommended that the Welsh Government itself needed to more pro-active in promoting innovation, evaluation and implementation of best practice across NHS Wales. The planning framework preceded the publication of the final report and its silence on the Welsh Government’s role in being a catalyst for service transformation is therefore missing. This needs to be rectified.

The abolition of the NHS internal market was widely welcomed in Wales. This in itself it does not provide automatic answers to all of the problems the NHS faces. But it allows for new ways of addressing them based on the principles of partnership, collaboration and public service values which are more clearly reflected in the latest planning framework guidance.

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