New NHS Board will help patients ‘shop around’ for GPs

October 31, 2011

Jane Dreaper Health correspondent for BBC News reported:

The new NHS Commissioning Board, which is at the heart of the government’s controversial NHS reforms in England, is due to start work. The board, which will at first operate in a shadow form, will aim to help patients “shop around” and compare GPs. It will take on the day-to-day running of the NHS, with a staff of around 3,500 and overall responsibility for NHS care worth £80bn. But critics say the board could prove unaccountable and overbearing.

Its role includes overseeing the new clinical commissioning groups led by GPs and other clinicians who will “buy” care within the NHS, and organising the treatment of complicated conditions such as heart transplants. Sir David Nicholson, chief executive of the board, said: “We’ll publish information about general practice, so you can compare what your GP provides compared with others in the area and nationally. “We think this will be a very powerful mechanism for patients to make choices about which GPs they use. “If you’ve got a long-term condition, you might want to think in future about different GPs and whether they’re providing a full range of service for that condition.” Sir David added: “We know that there are always teething troubles when you are issuing clinical data. People are concerned about the quality of it, and inevitably we’ll have to discuss this with GPs. “But I think that we can get over all of that, and do a really good job for GPs and patients.

The new board and its duties go to the heart of recent rows in Parliament about how the health secretary’s role will change under the Health and Social Care Bill. Sir David said: “Whilst the secretary of state has overall responsibility for the NHS, and for setting up the architecture to make that happen, he will also set out a mandate for the board. That will give a sense of what the government and the public can expect from the NHS. Then it’s down to the board to deliver it. I expect the board to be quite a high-profile public organisation, engaged openly in the way that it does its business. It is very important that the board meets in public, and that it engages with the public. With the best will in the world, the electoral cycle is a critical issue for politicians. Hopefully the board can think beyond the electoral cycle, and give the NHS the sort of consistent framework that it needs to really improve services for patients.”

The head of the King’s Fund think tank, Professor Chris Ham, said: “During this transition over the next few years, there’ll be a strong central grip by David Nicholson and the board. They will need to manage the very real risks that finances might get out of control and waiting times might get longer. It will be some time before the new clinical commissioning groups are ready and able to take on the responsibility. After that time, will the board be prepared to let go and hand over the power to the groups?”

Sir David Nicholson has been chief executive of the NHS in England since 2006. He said he did not want to micro-manage – and he revealed it was the substantial savings challenge facing the NHS that was keeping him awake at night. His name has become attached to the “Nicholson challenge” which is asking the service to generate savings of up to £20bn during the next four years. Sir David said: “We need to make sure that we completely rethink the way that we provide healthcare, so we can cope with the greater demand. There’s great pressure on the NHS. We have never made savings on this major scale before. I absolutely understand that people in the NHS are feeling quite hard-pressed. But if people are making short-term cuts, it’s because they haven’t planned. They’d better learn quickly that they have to plan for a future which does not have huge amounts of growth for the NHS.”