Not enough ‘safe care’ for maternity service users, warns NHS England

Adobe Spark (8)The chair of the Maternity Transformation Programme in England has warned that not enough is being done to ensure safety within maternity services. Speaking at the NHS England Health and Care Innovation Expo, Professor Sarah-Jane Marsh, said:

‘There are too many families […] who have not had safe care, who we have let down, and we need to do better.

‘Safety has to be at the heart of everything that we do in our maternity services. We have got to get it right. We know how to get it right, [but] often we just don’t do that consistently.’

In Better Births (NHS England, 2016), NHS England emphasised the need for safer, personalised, professional, family-friendly maternity services, realised through Local Maternity Systems, the maternity element of Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STPs). Here, providers, commissioners and organisations work at a local level to oversee and develop health care issues.

While Marsh called the vision ‘clear’, she cautioned that it was not ‘what is being talked about in every maternity unit in the country at the moment.’

Since the Maternity Transformation Programme was launched in July, 44 Local Maternity Systems have been set up to plan the design and delivery of services to populations of 500 000–1 500 000 people. Marsh claimed that these are making headway, and are looking towards the future of maternity services ‘with a ruthless focus on safety and personalisation.’ Although services are becoming safer, she warns that performance, when benchmarked against maternity staff, ‘is not as it should be’.

Marsh also raised concerns that boards are not as focused on maternity services, saying:

‘We need to have people, at board level, who really understand maternity safety, who understand how to get it right as well as to investigate when things go wrong.’

Marsh stressed that, while visions and national programmes are important,

‘The change that really matters is that which is made by clinical teams on the ground, coming together to want to make a difference for the patients, the families, the women they care for. And the women and families themselves having every opportunity to be able to participate, feedback their experience and work with professionals to improve services.’

Marsh also highlighted the importance of multiprofessional working, saying,

‘We need to see ourselves as one big maternity team […] We have got to move away from the idea that maternity care is purely about the midwives and the obstetricians, because there is so much more to it than that. […] Those who work together and train together ultimately go on to do even more personal and safe care.’

This sentiment was also emphasised by Professor Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent, head of maternity, children and young people for NHS England, who said:

‘We are working really hard and we will continue to work hard to ensure that avoidable death is reduced in this country. We have a commitment at the moment on the table from the Department of Health: £8 million has been allocated to support education and training. This fund has been awarded to maternity services to help them develop multidisciplinary training.’

Matthew Tagney, director of the Maternity Transformation Programme, agreed that progress was being made, but warned that the NHS was still far from its target of halving stillbirths, maternal and neonatal deaths, and brain injuries during or soon after birth by 2030:

‘I think there is a tremendous amount happening both nationally and locally.We are on track for 2020 but there is a huge amount more to do.’

While progress is being made on the delivery of better maternity services, there is still a long way to go. This was accepted by Marsh, who apologised to the hundreds of families who had lost babies:

‘You have my commitment and the commitment from the team at NHS England that we will work tirelessly every day to do the things that we know work in patient safety, and to make sure there are no baby deaths in this country that are avoidable.’

References

NHS England. National Maternity Review: Better Births—Improving outcomes of maternity services in England—A Five Year Forward View for maternity care. Leeds, NHS England: 2016

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What’s next for England’s ambulance services?

Adobe Spark (7)Details of the delivery of new ambulance standards were outlined by the National Clinical Director for Urgent Care at the Health and Care Innovation Expo in Manchester (NHS England, 2017a). Professor Jonathan Benger provided delegates with an overview of the Ambulance Response Programme, which he called: ‘the way we should do change in the NHS—change that is evidence based from the very beginning.’

Outlining the programme

The implementation of the Ambulance Response Programme was announced by NHS England (2017b) in July, following recommendations by the NHS England National Medical Director, Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, to the Health Secretary (Keogh, 2017). It consists of three initiatives that were developed to try and improve clinical responses for patients.

Phase 1 involved changes to the triage of calls to allow more time for call handlers in cases that are not deemed as immediately life-threatening. This has been referred to as dispatch on disposition. Traditionally, handlers had up to 60 seconds to assess calls and establish the urgency of the problem, and the type of response required. It is at this point that the clock is started for the performance measurement. The subsequent issue was that in an effort to meet an 8-minute response standard, ambulance services were sending multiple vehicles to the same patient and standing down the vehicles they thought wouldn’t get there first. Response cars would frequently be used as a way of ‘stopping the clock’ but then the patient would have a long wait for the transporting ambulance, which was detrimental to the patient but not measured on the system. According to Benger:

‘The problem created was one whereby a paramedic in a response car might spend their entire day just driving from one call to another but never actually reaching a patient.’

The Ambulance Response Programme therefore sought to provide a more clinically appropriate response by targeting the right resource to the right patient. For non-life-threatening calls, ambulance call handlers were given up to an additional 3 minutes to determine what was wrong with the patient and therefore decide an appropriate response.

Phase 2 involved the introduction of a new code set that has four key categories, rather than two, which better reflects the wide range of needs patients have when they dial 999. In the old system almost 50% of calls to ambulance services are classified as Red 1 or Red 2, requiring a response within 8 minutes. However, this does not accurately reflect the type and urgency of care needed by patients (Turner et al, 2017). Under the new system there will now be four revised call categories:

  • Category 1 is for life-threatening calls. These are for people needing treatment for life-threatening illnesses or injuries and will be responded to in an average of 7 minutes
  • Category 2 is for emergency calls. These are potentially serious conditions that may require rapid assessment, urgent on-scene intervention and/or urgent transport. These will be responded to in an average of 18 minutes
  • Category 3 is for urgent calls. These are non-life-threatening problems involving patients needing treatment to relieve suffering. Often they can be managed at the scene and 90% of these patients will be responded to within 120 minutes
  • Category 4 is for less urgent calls. These are for non-urgent problems requiring assessment either face-to-face or by telephone and 90% of these patients will be responded to within 180 minutes.

The final initiative involved a review of the current ambulance system, Ambulance Quality Indicators (AQI), and the development of a revised set of indicators linked to the revised call categories.

Evaluating the programme

A formal trial of Phase 1 began in October 2015 and a trial of the Phase 2 revised call categories began in three services in April 2016. An evaluation of Phases 1 and 2 was published by researchers at Sheffield University (Turner et al, 2017). Benger said:

‘We are very fortunate in the Ambulance Response Programme to have very good stakeholder engagement and excellent independent academic scrutiny from Sheffield University.

‘They have analysed the data we’ve collected from more than 14 million 999 calls. Of those 14 million patients, no patient came to harm as a result of the Ambulance Response Programme.’

The review revealed that under the new dispatch on disposition system, early recognition of life-threatening conditions, such as cardiac arrest, will increase. The knock-on effect is up to an additional 250 lives saved each year. By sending an appropriate response, more vehicles will be freed up to attend emergencies, and patients will be conveyed to the appropriate place.

According to Benger, when call handlers were given more time, rather than impeding or reducing the speed of response for the sickest patients, speed and performance actually improved.

‘The ambulance services became a lot more efficient,’ said Benger. ‘Taking the entirety of both dispatch on disposition and the new coding set together, we were releasing 15 000–16 000 additional resources each week that could respond to a 999 call, when that was not previously the case. And that’s principally from putting an end to duplicate responses.’

Evaluation of Phase 2 on its own, however, is more complicated. The use of time-based standards as a key performance measure have been used by ambulance services throughout the world, despite a lack of evidence that they actually lead to good clinical care. As Phase 2 has only been operational for a short period of time, it is not possible to say whether the new model is better, only that it is ‘different’ (Turner et al, 2017). However, the three services reviewed indicated a period of operational stability during a period of high demand, even when response time performance continued to deteriorate in services operating the current national model.

It is thought that the more flexible approach to call assessment, resource dispatch, and response intervals brought on by the combination of dispatch on disposition and the
new code set, may reduce further deterioration in performance and maintain a consistent service. However, as highlighted by the researchers at Sheffield University, a system of ongoing review and refinement is needed to optimise delivery (Turner et al, 2017).

Implementing the programme

All ambulance services are now using dispatch on disposition, and the new call categories are intended to be fully implemented by winter 2017. This will hopefully reduce pressures on A&Es during their busiest time period.

‘We wanted to make ambulance services as efficient as they could be but that we didn’t lose sight of some of the core aims: prioritising the sickest patients, making
sure we incentivise clinically and operationally efficient behaviours, and trying to reduce the long waits for patients,’ said Benger.

‘When I first started in my job, I noticed that when you gathered ambulance chief executives together in a room, they would spend about 90% of the time talking about ambulance response times and 10% about clinical outcomes. I’d like to reverse that.’

As demand for urgent and emergency care sees year-on-year increases, services have to adapt to reduce pressure and ensure patients are able to get the care they need. It is hoped the new ambulance standards will go some way to making this a reality.

References

Keogh B. Ambulance Response Programme—letter to Secretary of State [Internet]. Leeds: NHS England; 2017. Available from http://tinyurl.com/ybfgxmfx

NHS England. What next for England’s ambulance services? Leeds: NHS England; 2017a. Available from http://tinyurl.com/yb7vzk8g

NHS England. New ambulance standards announced. Leeds: NHS England; 2017b. Available from http://tinyurl.com/yc6ywmqs

Turner J, Jacques R, Crum A, Coster J, Stone T, Nicholl J. Ambulance Response Programme: Evaluation of Phase 1 and Phase 2. Final Report. Sheffield: School of Health and Related Research, University of Sheffield; 2017.

Taken from Journal of Paramedic Practice, published October 2017.

Hunt challenges the NHS to deliver digital services by 2018

Adobe Spark (6)The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has challenged the NHS to deliver digital services nationwide by 2018 to coincide with the NHS’ 70th anniversary next year.

Hunt used September’s Health and Care Innovation Expo in Manchester to highlight the opportunity of technology in creating ‘The patient power decade’. The Health Secretary painted a pixelated portrait of a future shift in power within the NHS from doctor to patient, with the patient ‘Using technology to put themselves in the driving seat of their own healthcare destiny.’

Hunt stated that by the end of 2018, patients will be able to use an integrated smartphone app to access services such as NHS 111, book a GP appointment and even have the ability to view healthcare records online.

Currently, according to NHS Digital, 680,000 patients are viewing their medical records online every month.

In this keynote speech, he further acknowledged how ‘People should be able to access their own medical records 24/7, show their full medical history to anyone they choose and book basic services like GP appointments or repeat prescriptions online.’

Mr Hunt also stated that the app could be used to order repeat prescriptions, access support for managing long-term conditions, or express preferences on organ donation, data sharing, and end-of-life.

Hunt emphasised how the ‘master-servant relationship’ between doctors and patients that has existed for three millennia will be ‘turned on its head’, and patients will use the information that becomes available at their fingertips, ‘to exert real control in a way that will transform the prospects of everyone.’

Overcoming hurdles

If the NHS is to successfully deliver digital health services, there are a number of potential hurdles to overcome. Firstly, there are concerns over the accessibility of services for those unfamiliar with smartphone technology, or from those of disadvantaged backgrounds who cannot afford to buy a smartphone. For this reason, Hunt stressed how the new services will be for everyone:

‘If the NHS is not there for everyone, it is nothing,’ he said. ‘We recognise that not everyone is comfortable using a smartphone. So we will always make sure that when we introduce new services, there is a face-to-face or telephone alternative, for people who do not use smartphones.’

While many older people struggle with online technology, it is worth pointing out this is not always for want of trying. Hunt outlined how 400 000 people have already been trained to help get them online, and over the next 3 years, a further 20 000 digital inclusion hubs will be rolled out. Additionally, wifi will be introduced across primary care this year and secondary care next year, which is hoped will help support people accessing online resources.

Secondly, in lieu of the NHS cyber attacks earlier this year, Hunt conceded that a lot needs to be done to win back the public’s trust:

‘We have to recognise that we still have a lot to do to earn the public’s trust that their patient data is safe with us,’ he said.

As part of this, the Government announced its response to the National Data Guardian and Care Quality Commission report on data security in July. Among the initiatives are 10 new data security standards, a £21 million investment to protect trauma centres from cyber attack and new national support for unsupported Microsoft systems that were part of the original problem that caused the cyber attacks.

The role of mobile technology in delivering health services was also highlighted in a keynote speech from Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, medical director of the NHS. He said we run our social lives, financial lives, travel lives and retail lives online, so why not our health? Keogh welcomed the idea of being able to book GP appointments, get blood results or see X-rays online. However, he also recognised that it brings with it some challenges.

The first challenge is digital therapy, particularly in the area of mental health. According to Keogh, this will involve activities patients can do on their mobile phone that will improve their health, such as talking therapies, so that they do not have to visit a psychologist, psychiatrist or your GP. The NHS will have to work out how it assesses these, but importantly it needs to work out the payment mechanisms behind them so that they are available for everyone on the NHS.

The second challenge concerns what happens when people can get advice and treatment outside normal geographical boundaries. Currently, the way the NHS is structured means a GP is determined by where a patient lives. However, Keogh highlighted how already many are visiting GPs outside the area where they live. He therefore questioned what happens as more people start to access health care not just beyond their local area but beyond their regional area and possibly internationally. He stressed the need to work out who pays for what, the duties of Government and arm’s length bodies with respect to ensuring the safety of those transactions, and the legal implications. The issue is how this can be made part of the NHS, rather than creating a two-tier ‘pay for it if you can’ service.

Looking to the future

Pilot schemes are already underway, with ongoing evaluation before the digital service is introduced nationally. According to Hunt, initial results from pilots in north London, Leeds, London and Suffolk, show that when NHS 111 services are transferred online it is safe. He also pointed out that if digital health services are introduced in the right way, it will save the NHS money. He said: ‘The 6% of people who use the 111 app, rather than speaking to the call handler, save the NHS money. That’s more resources for doctors and nurse.’

Looking to the future, Hunt confirmed that the Government are trying to build the safest, highest quality health system in the world. The role of technology, therefore, is one that he believes is of the utmost importance in making this a reality:

‘As we grapple with the challenges of resources, challenges to improve patient safety, challenges to improve quality and challenges to improve changing consumer expectation, technology can be our friend if we recognise it as a means to an end and not an end in itself, and that end is safer, healthier patients,’ he said.

Taken from British Journal of Healthcare Management, published October 2017.