Health Policy
Primary care at scale

By - Primary Care Journal

Primary care at scale (PCaS) entered the lexicon of healthcare in the NHS in England over 10 years ago. It should be regarded as a set of principles rather than an organisational form, albeit when these principles are applied, a larger provider organisation often results. However, there are many ways of delivering PCaS.

It is well recognised that a predetermined ‘one size fits all’ approach to providing integrated care to populations with diverse needs rarely delivers the desired improvement in quality, safety and consistency in the outcomes of care for patients.

Therefore, any structures created to deliver PCaS should result from these functional principles and assessment of the needs of the population being served. Population health management is now the internationally recognised approach to this analysis of need.

This approach moves away from episodic care to managing the care of a population, utilising data that is also focussed on predictive and preventative care.

PCaS is predicated on an ability to provide improved first contact care to a larger population than individual list-based general practice, but is more complex than just the aggregation of local practices.

Its purpose is to extend the provision of health and care services within a community setting through an integrated team-based approach. Many providers of primary care and other public services are usually incorporated into effective models of PCaS.

To be successful, a cultural shift is required by both clinicians and patients which changes the dependency on the GP being invariably the first point of contact and creates new models of care management.

The last (but by no means least) core principle for PCaS is to improve the deployment of health and care resources (human as well as financial) and so reduce per capita costs of care.

This often requires the alignment of clinical and financial drivers through the management of a whole population budget. Entitling clinicians to take responsibility for the stewardship of resources usually results in improved utilisation and productivity. Also investing in value-based outcomes rather than the historical institutional focus on quality and safety at whatever the cost will reduce overall spend in healthcare services.

Ultimately, a PCaS organisational form needs to be ‘the right size to do the job’ and its size allows for a ‘one team’ approach to the provision of care to a defined population.

These principles should direct the core purpose of primary care networks (PCNs) as designed for the NHS in England. To do otherwise may result in PCNs simply trying harder at what has already failed in previous NHS reforms.

Whatever the model(s) for delivering PCaS, policymakers need to learn the ‘art of control by letting go’ and empower the service to move away from a centralist approach. Enabling the freedom to make decisions at the right level creates the right environment for effective delivery and leads to sustainable system change.

Unfortunately, this has rarely been achieved in the past. There has too often been a malalignment of behaviours and incentives in the system and ‘engagement’ of the service in predesigned models of PCaS has failed. Only through the development of a consistent set of values and promoting co-production with the service can new models of care emerge.

Moving away from positional leadership to an approach of distributed leadership within a PCaS model also promotes an attitude of collaboration by the people doing the work. The liberation of the ‘leader inside’ the individual creates a more purposeful style of practice for improved provision of care.

The transformation from current primary care provision to PCaS can eventually be achieved through learning from the past, seeking knowledgeable advice and using an evidence base for reform.

Often, multiple small-scale redesigns over long periods of time involving a series of well managed sequential experiments is necessary. Reformers need to keep testing and prepare for feedback, mid-course correction and revision if the change is unproductive. Operational change should then emerge rather than be planned. Reformers should be prepared to forgive themselves when things go wrong, as no-one gets it right first time.

Initiating care reform programmes and, in particular, developing PCaS should start where the energy is and where people are ready for change. An incremental approach to implementation should then be taken.

Co-production and use of knowledge in the service is paramount in order to develop a feeling of ownership rather than engagement in someone else’s design.

The ability to deliver the principles and requirements of improved service delivery through a PCaS approach within PCNs is achievable. However, there may need to be a reset in future design. The current environmental factors and a contractual prescriptive approach may prove to be counterproductive to the ambition of the NHS Long Term Plan.


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