A Healthier Wales (June 2018) is the Welsh Government’s response to the  Parliamentary Review of the future of Health and Social Care in Wales. It promises a programme of transformative whole system change with a move to a service that focused on health, well-being and prevention – a ‘wellness’ system, which aims to support and anticipate health needs, to prevent illness, and to reduce the impact of poor health and inequality.

A key part of the this transformation will be delivered through local primary and community care clusters working with both Local Health and Regional Partnership Boards. There will be a shift in services from general hospitals to regional and local centres with primary and community care delivering a expanded range of professionally led services. In October 2019 the Wales Audit Office (WAO) published Primary Care Services in Wales which evaluated progress with a particular focus. on strategic planning, investment, workforce, oversight and leadership, and performance.

The WAO report acknowledges the work that the Welsh Government and NHS Cymru is doing to achieve the level of transformation that is needed. A National Primary Care Board and a National Director has been appointed to provide a focus and impetus to drive this agenda forward. A Primary and Community Care Development and Innovation Hub has been formed with the support of Public Health Wales which is also providing guidance to improve clinical network governance. And at health board level designated directors or senior operating officers provide a lead for primary care with work being undertaken to develop a national evaluation framework which can be used to measure progress at a local level.

These initiatives have been supported by a number of funding streams that operate at all levels in Wales from the National Transformation Fund and the Integrated Care Fund to a National Primary Care Fund. These resources are allocated in a variety of ways including to clinical networks and practices to promote change and innovation including “pathfinder” and “pacesetter” projects operating at a grass roots level.
But despite all of this the WAO concludes that change has not happened as quickly or as widely as intended and has outlined a number of reasons why this has not happened. This is acknowledged in the Welsh Government’s own National Integrated Medium Term Plan (2020-23)

A key component of the Healthier Wales approach is The Strategic Programme for Primary Care was launched in November 2018. It is based on the new “Primary Care Model for Wales”. This outlines what it  regards as the main components of a good primary care system. These key components include informed and empowered citizens, self-care, stronger community services, new first points of contact for patients including triage to ensure they are seen by the appropriate healthcare professional, better urgent care arrangements and stronger multi-disciplinary working.

There is much to commend in this New Model but the WAO points out that it has emerged with little public consultation. This lack of debate and discussion means that in many respects there is a lack of clarity as to the purpose and direction of the New Model.

In the “old model” GPs were the initial point of contact and gatekeepers for virtually all other health services. In the New Model the GP will continue to provide the first port of call for some patients but many patients will also be able to directly access many alternative community based professionals, thus freeing up GP time to see the sickest patients and those with complex chronic conditions. These alternative practitioners will include pharmacists, physiotherapists, opticians, dentists and members of mental health teams.

The emergence of this New Model seems to be driven by necessity and is a pragmatic response to the sustainability challenges facing general practice rather an evidence based evaluation of the key elements that a holistic general practice and primary care service would require . This sustainability challenge is caused by the combination of the growing workload in general practice, changing work and contractual patterns as well as signficant recruitment difficulties.

This New Model is intended to provide improved access “to services”. This is bound to be seen as preferable to having no access at all but of itself it may not be the most optimal configuration or care pathway. This range of “front doors” into the health service will inevitably lead to discontinuity of care, fragmentation and a lack of co-ordination.

Continuity of care is a key characteristic of quality primary care. It has two mail elements, horizontal continuity as a patient / service user utilises a range of services as part of a holistic response to their needs and longitudinal continuity based on ongoing personal care is delivered over time. Both are important but the former seems to have primacy in the current articulation of the New Model.

Delivering horizontal continuity depends on having good team work supported by an infrastructure that goes with the grain of seamless care across professional and organisational boundaries. This will require health and regional partnership boards as well as local clinical networks working more effectively together supported by shared personal care records and a robust IT system.

Longitudinal continuity and quality care is built on long term personal relationships. But these relationships will struggle to develop and mature if patients and service users face a variety of diverse professionals whenever they attempt to use the service. “Time” is at the heart of these relationships both in terms of having the time to listen and work with patients in line with their needs and also it is only over time that a continuing personal,professional relationships can be built.

General practice is under continuing and unsustainable pressure but despite this the workforce is not increasing in line with need and list sizes are static. This, in part, explains the pressure to promote the New Model of primary care but that will never be an adequate solution without a substantial increase in crucial front line workers particularly GPs. The Welsh Government has launched a number of initiatives to increase GP numbers including a welcome increase in training posts  but neither it or the WAO seem to be willing to move much beyond the traditional parameters of the solutions being offered by the medical “establishment” such as GPC Wales or the RCGP.

There are between two to three dozen health board managed practices in Wales as well as 778 sessional / “locum” GPs working alongside 1,964 GPs principles. But despite this large salaried GP workforce there is no overall strategic policy in place to promote their professional development or retain them in clinical practice. Initiatives such as the establishment of a GP Locum Register are a step forward but much more needs to be done in the face of the evidence that the independent contractor option is no longer the preferred model of work by very many GPs.

Already the Auditor General for Wales pointed out that the shift in resources towards primary care that has been at the centre of much of the NHS policy in recent years has not being achieved. If the changes that the Welsh Government and NHS Cymru have put in place do not achieve a  rebalance in resource allocation then little new will happen. In addition the WAO also expressed concern at the lack of transparency in the way that primary and community care is funded. This makes it very difficult to monitor any real shifts in resources is taking place with is a precondition to achieving transformational change.

Apart from the reasons outlined in the WAO report there are additional problems in monitoring where NHS resources are actually allocated. The creation of larger health boards in Wales in 2009 has meant that a certain level of sensitivity has been lost allocating resources. The Welsh Government’s commitment to clinical networks, which cover about 50,000 people, is an opportunity to address this loss of sensitivity as well as providing a more meaningful population size to monitor health inputs and outcomes.

Over recent recent years health and social care spending has has increased between 4.5 – 6% which is generous compared to the pressures on the overall Welsh Government budgets. These increases must be used to provide the headroom for a meaningful transfer of resources towards primary and community care. As the WAO suggests a transparent framework is needed to monitor this transfer.

This framework should include a rapid move towards a 10% allocation of NHS resources to primary care services. This should be linked to the creation of at least an additional 200 GPs in post in Wales as a matter of urgency so that average list sizes will be reduced to Scottish levels with more easily accessible time being available for patients.

Health boards and clinical networks, working with Public Health Wales, must monitor where these resources go locally to ensure that there is a clear focus on addressing health inequalities and the Inverse Care Law.

Primary health and community care teams must be strengthened both address current health and care needs both at the individual and wider community level. And where traditional models of delivery, such as the independent GP contract, are failing to deliver, health boards must take direct responsibility. Progress cannot be held back by the speed of the slowest.

The latest NHS Planning Framework (2019-22) specifically asks that health boards should place a particular emphasis on prevention, reducing health inequalities, the new Primary Care Model for Wales, timely access to care and mental health. However it does so at a fairly high level and only give very broad indications as to what it expects it health boards to deliver. In this context, the WAO report’s recommendation of a more explicit accountability framework should provide for greater focus and accountability.

In a Healthier Wales the Welsh Government expected to demonstrate early impacts over three years. We are already half way though this time frame and, as the WAO report shows, much more now needs to be done to deliver against that ambition.

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4 Comments

  1. Aloysius says:

    Hello,
    Good article. There seems to be a typo on the first paragraph, ‘to the’ appeared twice, please do review it.

    Health and wellness of the people and the surrounding environment are vital part of leaving in that they will combine to bring sustainability and increased productivity.

    1. Jean Smith says:

      Typo corrected.
      Admin

      1. Aloysius Bonexzy says:

        Alright, that is good. I have seen that, good work.

  2. Diana says:

    Thank you for this article. It is interesting and exciting. I was impressed how well you express your thoughts.

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