The UK doesn't provide enough medical care for some – and too much for others

Doctors and patients need to question unnecessary procedures, writes Dr Margaret McCartney.

Earlier this year, I was in Washington listening to the reasons why the "Choosing Wisely" campaign was set up. This is the country which spends the most per head on healthcare in the world. The doctor on the podium was not happy. We are doing too many tests, too many procedures, and prescribing too many medicines, he said. Doctors needed to wisen up and stop doing do much stuff. “Basically; what we're saying is; don’t be stupid.”

Choosing Wisely is a campaign backed by the full force of the American medical hierarchy – from the American College of Surgeons to the Society of Critical Care Medicine. Each learned institution has come up with “Five Things Physicians and Patients Should Question.” So the American Academy of Paediatrics says that CT scans for minor head injuries aren’t necessary (when, currently, 50 per cent of children attending in these circumstances are being sent to the CT scanner.) The College of Physicians says that you shouldn’t do X-rays in straightforward low back pain. Elsewhere: don’t use high dose antacid drugs when you can use them at low dose – or not at all. Don’t use feeding tubes for people with dementia – concentrate on helping the person feed by mouth. They are pledges to do better medicine, but also, crucially, to do fewer tests and procedures, and prescribe fewer pills. And to be "less stupid" - stop doing things that the evidence tells us doesn’t work.

This is a volte-face for American doctors. But it's also a contrast to the UK, where the more-is-more philosophy has been gathering pace amongst medics. The contract which GPs work to is in many cases a payment per intervention: We check blood pressures and cholesterols because when patients come in to see us, there are small boxes on the computer screen which tell us they are due (we are paid when we hit the target); campaigns from the Department of Health urge us to achieve more ‘early” diagnosis; health secretary Jeremy Hunt has been vocal in criticising GPs for not diagnosing dementia as often as we apparently should.

The message is that faster diagnosis and more medicine is better. The US still advocates multiple non-evidence-based interventions, in vastly greater quantity than the UK: for example, breast and internal examinations are routine for a straightforward prescription of the contraceptive pill.

Even so, we still have an awful lot of treatment of conditions that would never have brought the patient to any harm. For example, for a patient who has never had a heart attack or stroke, treating cholesterol with statins for 5 years will stop 1.6 per cent of people having a heart attack, and 0.4 per cent from having a stroke. This means that the other 98 per cent get no benefit – but they still get the harms. The risk of developing diabetes caused by the statins is 1.5 per cent. And the cost of overtreatment is not just financial cost, or side effects, but also of making perfectly healthy citizens into patients.

Now the US is keen to talk about doing less. Quite right: it is unsustainable to spend as much as they do on tests, procedures or medications and afford it. But the twin of cost is effectiveness; using less unnecessary medicine saves money, but also reduces harm. During the last US election, when some US commentators accused the National Institute of Clinical Excellence’s judgements as being that of a “death panel” they failed to see the point: not all medicine is good for us. Some of it is decidedly bad for us. Some of it simply doesn’t work.

Jeremy Hunt’s idea of "early diagnosis" for dementia is a case in point. He wants people who have concerns about their memory to be rapidly assessed for dementia. The problem is that most people will have experienced problems with their memory, and the vast majority do not have dementia. Many memory problems in older people can be low grade and not particularly medically concerning. Known as MCI, moderate cognitive impairment, it progresses to dementia in only a minority of cases. But because the psychological testing and the brain scans are not highly specific for dementia, it means false positives are common – some people will be told they have dementia when they don’t.

Meantime, the people who really do have problems with not just memory but their ability to function because of it are less likely to see their doctor to discuss it – and more likely to have a serious underlying cause. The paradox is that the most healthy get tests they don’t need, and diagnoses they don’t benefit from, while the most ill get least care – as usual.

This is the real crunch, and the prize. The Inverse Care Law – that most healthcare goes to the people who benefit least from it – was described by GP Julian Tudor Hart in 1971. We have progressed very little with reversing it. Perhaps we can, now. More and more of the medical establishment can see that we have a problem: too much medicine for some, but not enough medical care for others. Facing up to the stupidly of the current status quo is a start.

Photograph: Getty Images

Margaret McCartney is a GP in Glasgow who broadcasts for Radio 4's Inside Health and is author of The Patient Paradox: Why Sexed-Up Medicine is Bad for Your Health.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.