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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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war