Community services make up a large part of NHS activity but years of initiatives and ideas have left a legacy of highly complex, poorly coordinated care

Community services make up a large part of NHS activity, including chronic disease management, intensive rehabilitation, health visiting and school nursing.

Yet years of initiatives, policy ideas and fads have left a legacy of highly complex, narrowly focused and often poorly coordinated services, making the system difficult to understand and navigate, even for professionals.

So, with an ongoing ambition to shift care out of hospitals and closer to people’s homes, what is needed to transform community services?

Privatising community services

Launched by the government in 2008, the grandiosely named Transforming Community Services programme very noticeably did no such thing.

‘Community services have remained neglected, and the commissioning of these services has been hampered by their complex and diverse nature’

Mostly concerned with structural changes rather than with service improvement, the programme led to some community services being privatised – and often set up to fail against hugely onerous procurement processes – with others transferred to whichever acute or mental health provider was available.

Officials gave the strong impression they would be happy to see the entire community service workforce moved off the NHS payroll, and policy changes were put in place to assist this. 

Since then community services have remained neglected and poorly understood, and the commissioning of these services has also been hampered by their complex and diverse nature.

Lacking direction

In the services themselves there has been a loss of direction and, more worryingly, a loss of staff from what is already an ageing workforce. Mergers and reorganisations have left hospitals and GPs confused about who to refer to, while community services often do not respond quickly enough when patients are discharged.

The programme is not the only policy failure in this area.

The equally grandiose Our Health, Our Care, Our Say white paper, which promised a “once in a generation” chance to change the NHS, was also a damp squib. It lacked the machinery for implementation and was not actively followed up by later secretaries of state.

And yet these are the services that are going to be asked to bear the burden of dealing with a growing and ageing population that – without other measures – will require an additional 13,500 hospital beds to soak up additional demand.

The ambition to move care closer to home is not new – it has been the agreed direction for years – but further significant changes are needed in the way care is delivered to achieve it. So it’s interesting to reflect on why community services have received more rhetorical support than actual support which is what we explore in the King’s Fund’s new paper on transforming community services, published on 13 February.

Tips for transformation

First, they have lacked a story about what they can do; their complexity and the diversity of the services they run has not helped. 

Second, these services do not control many of the key points on the patient pathway, including referrals, admissions, discharges and other important transitions, that they need to influence if they are going to reshape care effectively. 

Third, quite a lot of community services are provided direct to patients. Important though these services are, other providers may not be aware of them which means they have few advocates in other parts of the system. Crucially, they do not often employ any of the key influencers in the NHS: consultant medical staff.

‘A lot of the enthusiasm for community services seems to be because they are believed to be cheaper than hospital care’

Fourth, the blanket application of cost improvements to services in which a very high proportion of costs are spent on staff has often reduced quality. This is because basic management practices – for example, mobile working, work flow management and record keeping – have been adopted slowly and so efficiencies have been found by cutting staff.

Finally, quite a lot of the enthusiasm for community services seems to be because they are believed to be cheaper than hospital care. This is true only in particular circumstances.

Failures of policy and process

The funding model is based on a myth: that money can be easily taken out of the acute sector, that we know how to do this and that the mechanisms are in place to do so. 

Most of the growth in community services has been from increases in funding rather than a shift of resources.

This area represents multiple failures of policy and process: failure to develop good metrics and effective commissioning; underinvestment in good management; ineffective implementation of policy; and general neglect.

Some providers are delivering fantastic and innovative care against the odds and new thinking and models are emerging. It will now be important that the mistakes of the past are not repeated and the opportunity to transform community services is seized.

Nigel Edwards is a senior fellow at the King’s Fund and will be chief executive of the Nuffield Trust from April. This article also appears on the King’s Fund blog.