The head of NHS England gets his blood pressure tested. Photo: Getty
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How people-powered personalisation could lead the NHS to recovery

The NHS needs a highly personalised and co-productive approach that calls on the creative collaboration of individuals, families and communities.

It’s been an important month for personalisation in the NHS. For the first time, around 60,000 adults eligible for Continuing Health Care now have the legal right to a personal health budget. Health and social care leaders have been finalising applications to participate in the potentially ground breaking Integrated Personal Commissioning Project seeking to blend social health and social care funding for individuals and allow them to direct how it is used. And publication of the NHS’s Five Year View set a course for the organisation that commits the organisation to enabling patients to have far more control over their care, including but not only through greater control over shared budgets.

Encouragingly, these moves towards personalisation appear to be based on a deep understanding of why producer-led forms of provision have had their day. The Five Year View makes a strong defence of the values and professionalism of today’s NHS, but makes no bones about where it has fallen short, operating as if health and wellbeing can be delivered to people, rather than achieved in partnership with them. 

It warns that the NHS has been prone to "operating" a "factory model of care and repair" instead of harnessing what it calls the "renewable energy represented by its patients and communities". At a point when 70 per cent of today’s health spend is on long term conditions, rather than isolated health problems that might respond to one-off "repair", agreeing forms of support that fit with people’s own lives and aspirations, and plug into their own resources, could hardly be more important. 

So, as health prepares to speed up its journey to personalisation, it makes sense to look at what can be learned from the experience of other sectors, particularly the sector in which personalisation was born – social care. Much of that learning is very encouraging. We now have detailed evidence of the impact of personal budgets, for example, on the lives of those who use them. 

This month saw the publication of the Third National Personal Care Survey. In line with previous research it shows that the overwhelming majority of budget users believe that their lives have improved in terms of independence, dignity and family and paid relationships. As Alex Fox has noted in a new report for the RSA, people who make long term use of social care have repeatedly demonstrated over the past two decades that they are often better than highly trained professionals at making effective use of public resources. 

Yet personalisation remains highly controversial as a philosophy and as a set of practices. Critics worry about colluding with neo-liberal models of individual choice and control, about the de-professionalisation and fragmentation of the workforce, about creeping inequities, and about abnegating proper risk management. Even some of those who are well-disposed towards its aims are concerned that personal budgets in particular have become expensive bureaucratic thicket in which rationing and provider-interest continue to thrive.

For Alex Fox, the way of resolving these problems is to go back to the roots of personalisation and recognise the true challenge it presents, which is not one of administrative adjustment but of profound culture change. Far from being founded on an individualised view of wellbeing, personalisation rests on a deep understanding and respect for how we thrive or falter as people who are embedded in families and communities. So personalisation must go wider than budgets and individual choices, as clearly recognised back in 2007 in the government’s Putting People First concordat. For personalisation to succeed it needs to be part of a shift towards prevention and the development of inclusive and supportive communities.

The RSA’s own research and practice supports this approach. Our work on social isolation and drug and alcohol recovery, for example, is based on building trust in the capability of individuals, families and communities to forge solutions that are right for them, with the support of services that are re-shaped to respect and support the support ecosystems – formal and informal – of the places they serve. 

For example, the RSA’s Whole Person Recovery Team in West Kent is testing, at scale, a service delivery model that fosters community networks in order to support sustainable, long-term recovery from drug and alcohol abuse. The service attempts to build people’s "recovery capital" by connecting them with the people, groups and places who can become their support ecosystem.  It is a highly personalised and co-productive approach that calls on the creative collaboration of individuals, families and communities. 

Ironically, given the aspirations of the NHS Four Year View, Whole Person Recovery explicitly rejects a medicalised model of addiction and recovery – a reminder, if one were needed, of the  and scale of the task ahead if the health service truly wants to embrace personalisation. For social care, the culture change challenge has been huge. For health, it is likely to be even greater.

Paul Buddery is director of RSA 2020 Public Services

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle