Will more choice help us through the maze?

Patients will want to take the path that leads them to the healthcare that they want, at a time when

Choice is often touted as a panacea. If you give people the power to choose you make them responsible for their own destiny rather than treating them like commodities on a conveyor belt.

But what use is having an array of options if you don't understand the consequences of your selection? Healthcare, and the bureaucracy that shapes it, changes swiftly and it takes an astute, almost abnormally interested individual to keep track of the various bodies operating in one's local NHS, let alone at national level. There are primary care trusts, hospital trusts, community trusts, foundation trusts - and most recently, "super surgeries", or polyclinics, which are being built in certain areas to give patients far greater access to healthcare services.

Alongside all of these alternatives, pharmacies are being recommended as places for patients to go to seek medical help for what they perceive are minor problems. The press that surrounds the promotion of pharmacies is mixed: some say the advice given is inadequate, others concur that another avenue for people to obtain healthcare guidance can only be a good thing.

Of course, it's a no-brainer that greater access to healthcare is beneficial, especially in overcrowded or remote areas. But how are members of the public meant to know which source of medical advice is most appropriate for them? Joe and Jane Public may have an inkling as to what constitutes "primary" care, but as the boundaries change and services that used to be hospital-based are offered in new settings, confusion is likely to result in them resorting to visiting the most familiar setting: the GP surgery - if they can get an appointment - or, at the weekend and evenings, A&E. The NHS Direct helpline earns praise and criticism, with negative comments along the lines of, "They just told me to see my GP", to positive accounts of lives being saved thanks to timely advice being dispensed.

Seeing a door marked “consulting area” in a pharmacy helps to embed the idea that asking advice is expected, is welcome

There is no obvious consistency when it comes to the healthcare facilities in area A or B. Why should patients know that a pharmacy is linked to the local GP practice, which in turn falls under the aegis of the primary care trust (PCT)? They may view the pharmacy solely as somewhere to pick up some paracetamol and toiletries, failing to appreciate that the pharmacist can offer far more than a swift exchange of prescription docket for packets of pills and ointments.

Indeed, if patients have only ever used their pharmacist as a post-GP stop-off to collect new medication, they need to be made aware that the professionals behind the counter can provide a range of guidance. Some pharmacies - the major chains - have installed quiet booths within which consultations can take place away from the other shoppers. Seeing a door marked "consulting area" in a pharmacy helps to embed the idea that asking advice is expected, is welcome, and is not an added extra that interrupts the flow of pharmacy life.

However, while some patients will feel confident enough to seek advice from their pharmacist, either because they trust them or are aware that dispensing advice is the done thing, others prefer the continuity afforded them through their GP. The same principle applies when considering the move to polyclinics. People value the connections they cultivate with various health professionals. These relationships are intimate and are not to be underestimated, as they can drive individuals towards, or away from, particular sources of healthcare.

That said, the problem remains that, when someone approaches a pharmacist for advice, they are perhaps relying on diagnostic skills being better than the profession demands. This is not to denigrate the pharmacist in any way, but pharmacists lack the medical training and records that GPs have at their fingertips, so is it not imperative that the two professions work closely to deal with patients in a mutually accepted, consistent manner, referring to each other when necessary?

Where there are numerous healthcare options available, all parties must collaborate, not compete. This will help make it obvious to the layman or woman that these seemingly disparate parts of NHS healthcare fall under one umbrella, that they communicate, access common information (that is safely and accurately maintained) and are working together to drive up health standards by putting patients at the centre of all decisions. Only when all the potential participants in a person's quest to achieve good health are integrated can people be successfully guided through the maze of options available to them. Who does what, where, why, and how, will become obvious through good practice.

It doesn’t matter to patients that a procedure once carried out in a hospital outpatients department is now taken care of at their local GP practice

The NHS, an unquestionably mammoth, dynamic organisation, will seldom be transparent to the average patient but, if further entry points are introduced to the system that merely serve to compound confusion, this would be a missed opportunity to truly widen access. Yes, in the short term, seven-days-a-week health centres will benefit those who cannot take time off work to see their GP, or who cannot wait the best part of a day to have a routine blood test carried out. However, there will be gaps or duplications in commissioning and priorities that would be shamefully senseless in an environment where money is tight and the ultimate goal of high-quality patient care is common.

It doesn't matter to patients that a procedure once carried out in a hospital outpatients department is now taken care of at their local GP practice. No one bothers - and neither should they - that funding for a health check comes from primary, rather than secondary care coffers. As far as the taxpayer is concerned, they are paying for the lot.

People will take the path that gives them what they need when they need it. If that means going to A&E because their GP practice has unacceptably lengthy waiting times, so be it. It doesn't have to be that way but patients may not know any different and, until they do (which is the responsibility of NHS providers), change may be hard fought and "choice" may simply equate to confusion.

Joy Persaud is a freelance journalist and can be reached here.

This article first appeared in the 03 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Israel v Hamas

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times