Support for integrated care increased last year, but there is still much for the NHS and government to do to make it effective for patients

The momentum behind integrated care, generated by the work of the NHS Future Forum and Norman Lamb’s appointment as care and support minister, has increased in 2013.

‘Regulation has an essential role in ensuring that providers are well led and financially sustainable’

Fourteen areas that will take forward integrated care at scale and pace have been identified; the establishment of the “better care fund” will require all areas to develop plans to integrate health and social care; and changes to the GP contract are designed to reinforce the role of GPs in coordinating care for older patients.

Welcome as these developments are, many barriers stand in the way of translating policy aspirations into practice. While some of these can only be tackled at a local level, others require changes in government policy if integrated care really is to move forward at the scale and pace demanded by current financial and service pressures. The most important changes are:

  • ensuring that provider regulation does not get in the way of partnership working;
  • ensuring that quality regulation is not overly focused on organisational performance;
  • developing payment systems that create incentives to integrate care; and
  • supporting commissioners to promote greater integration.

Taking each in turn, regulation through Monitor and the NHS Trust Development Authority has an essential role in ensuring that providers are well led and financially sustainable. The challenge in carrying out this role is to ensure that the regulators do not make partnership working harder to achieve by requiring providers to strengthen their balance sheets at the expense of the other NHS organisations they work with.

Slow progress

The King’s Fund’s work with NHS organisations at a local level indicates that this is already happening in some places. If it becomes more widespread there is a risk that providers will, quite rationally, concentrate on their own survival to keep the regulators at bay.

This will then make it difficult for providers to collaborate with commissioners and other providers to achieve closer integration of care in what could descent into a zero-sum game.

Developments in quality regulation present another set of challenges. Under its new leadership, the Care Quality Commission is moving to strengthen inspection with an initial focus on hospitals, general practice and social care. In so doing, the CQC is putting the emphasis on assessing organisational performance rather than system performance, partly in response to well publicised concerns about quality failures in hospitals, care homes and general practices.

‘Ministers must encourage a permissive environment in which different approaches can be tested without fear of retribution’

This is understandable but risks downplaying the need to regulate how organisations work together to meet the needs of people whose care depends on different parts of the system being joined up. The actions of the CQC may in this way unintentionally force organisations to focus on their own performance, thereby giving less attention to how they can work in partnership to deliver high quality and well coordinated care.

It goes without saying that payment systems must create incentives to integrate care, and that payment by results was not designed to do this. Despite much talk of alternatives, such as year of care payments and capitated budgets, progress in developing more appropriate incentives has been painfully slow.

The partial exception is where providers and commissioners have taken the initiative − often under the radar − to do local deals. Ministers must now ensure that Monitor and NHS England take their responsibilities in this area seriously by developing currencies that support integrated care. They must also encourage a permissive environment in which different approaches can be tested without fear of retribution.

Innovative commissioning

Last but not least, commissioners have a key role in promoting greater integration but this has become much more difficult since the population based budgets controlled by primary care trusts have been fragmented between clinical commissioning groups, NHS England and local authorities.

If integrated service provision is to become a reality then ways must be found to reintegrate commissioning responsibilities and budgets. Health and wellbeing boards have a part to play here but they remain in an early stage of development and much remains to be done to strengthen their role.

‘In the absence of a framework, policy aspirations will remain unfulfilled and patients and users will be the losers’

One of the ways in which commissioners can make a positive contribution is through the use of innovative approaches to commissioning care. These approaches include outcomes based contracts, alliance contracting and prime provider models. A few areas are actively testing these innovations and NHS England could do more to support and encourage this kind of work, including by ensuring these innovations do not fall foul of the market regulators.

All of these issues are being played out when financial and service pressures are growing by the day with the risk of a fiscal cliff appearing in 2015-16. Alongside action by ministers to remove barriers to progress, priority should therefore be given to the development of collaborative, system-wide leadership without which there is a clear and present danger that organisations will adopt a fortress mentality to cope with these pressures.

Looking back, there was welcome progress in 2013 but, for those of us who have advocated integrated care for some time, it is premature to declare victory. A coherent and consistent policy framework is needed to support the undoubted commitment in the NHS, local government and the third sector to build on the foundations that have been established. In the absence of such a framework, policy aspirations will remain unfulfilled and patients and users will be the losers.

Chris Ham is chief executive of the King’s Fund. A version of this article also appears on the King’s Fund blog