Health inequalities in Rural Scotland

I wrote this essay after attending a discussion about health inequalities in Scotland. It isn’t directly about Realistic Medicine, but it sets the background.

INTRODUCTION:

17% of Scotland’s people live in remote and rural areas, nearly a million people, double the population of Edinburgh. (1, 2). They live in one of the most beautiful places on the planet, with one of the lowest population densities in Europe. All of them have a right to be registered with a GP and have access to healthcare that is safe, effective, person-centred, equitable, timely and efficient, as outlined in the Chief Medical Officer’s annual reports. (3)

However, the current challenges facing remote and rural health care teams are barriers to meeting these aspirations. Existing good practice seems to be undervalued, and the principles of the new Scottish GP contract do not seem appropriate for very small and remote clinical teams.

CONTEXT AND BACKGROUND:

We have a shortage of GPs in Scotland, with many areas reporting longstanding and significant levels of vacancies. With shrinking clinical teams, it becomes harder to deliver the additional extras, the enhanced services that were a feature of the previous GP contract; enhanced service contracts became the mechanism for encouraging GP practices to take on additional work for additional income. Increasingly, GPs across the UK have been concerned about secondary care work being shifted out into primary care without adequate funding or support.

In response, the new Scottish GP contract has pared back the requirement for GPs to undertake non-core services, so that they can focus on the core work of providing primary medical services. At the same time, some of the clinical work currently done by GPs could be done by others, such as physiotherapists, pharmacists, psychiatric nurses and others, and the new contract asks health boards to change to this model.

In our rural practices, with small numbers of patients scattered over wide areas, GP practices have been the only realistic option for providing health care services without travelling huge distances. Small teams based round one or two GPs have provided a very wide range of services, taking on additional roles to provide a holistic service. Recruitment, retention, and support appropriate to the area would sustain services.

The rural GPs that I know are proud of the excellent services they can provide to their communities. Being a member of such a community means that rural GPs identify very highly with their patients, their difficulties and aspirations. They are advocates for local health services, with a deep knowledge and understanding of the local population. There is a strong culture of stewardship, of using the resources of the NHS wisely and appropriately for the best outcomes. Rural General Practice has been delivering Realistic Medicine for many years before it was branded and marketed by the Chief Medical Officer for Scotland.

Published data shows that Scotland’s rural areas have a static and unacceptably high level of fuel poverty, (4) with nearly two fifths of residents needing to spend more than 10% of their income to heat one room of their homes to safe levels. Fuel poverty is associated with worse health outcomes.

Populations are older too. In the Western Isles, for example, a quarter of the population is over 65, retired, less economically active, and this number is set to rise to over a third in the next fifteen to twenty years. Older populations have higher rates of multi-morbidity, cancer, falls and frailty, with complex health and social care needs.

Within the last year, the new contract for primary care in Scotland has been voted on and implemented. It has been a radical revision of the way that medical services are provide out with hospitals, aiming to address the shortfall of GPs by increasing access to other healthcare professionals in the context of multidisciplinary teams.

It has come with a new allocation formula, claiming to improve funding for teams providing care for older patients, and improving funding to practices where GP income is low.

THE NEW CONTRACT – DOES IT ADDRESS HEALTH INEQUALITY AND GP RETENTION AND RECRUITMENT?

The new contract has left many rural GPs feeling devalued and disheartened. Their professional raison d’etre has been to provide a holistic service, going the extra distance to ensure that care can be delivered by clinicians who know their patients well, delivered by teams that are stable and supportive.

By breaking these teams up, telling GPs that their enhanced services are no longer required, whilst parachuting in a number of peripatetic staff each working one session a week in each of multiple practices, this all feels like a betrayal. The contract does not value the extended services that make rural practice so effective in delivering rural Realistic Medicine.

While no practice in Scotland will receive less money initially, the Scottish Allocation Formula makes it clear that some practices are more deserving than others. In rural practices and in ‘deep end’ practices, there is little in the way of hope of an uplift. The formula does not  recognise adequately the additional costs of running a rural service, the cost of addressing the health needs of rural poverty, of fuel poverty, the personal health and financial cost of travel to care, or the additional costs of professional training and networking.

The striking map below illustrates where practices are getting an uplift in funding in green dots. It was put together by Dr G Wheeler, North Uist Medical Practice, from data from the Scottish Government. (5)

the right map

At the same time, the impact of other policies is still being felt. Scotland’s broadband and mobile phone networks were designed to reach the majority, rather than the populations that needed them most. Even though broadband roll-out has been trumpeted widely, on the ground in rural areas, the infrastructure is incomplete. Rural practices still don’t have access to new data-collection systems, and wifi is still limiting participation from remote areas.

The new contract does not address rural health inequality and may be contributing to reduced retention. The allocation formula does not address the additional costs of providing health care in rural areas, the need to provide care to small and isolated populations all day every day, the need to provide realistic care in the case of widespread multimorbidity. If a multidisciplinary team is led by a GP now, expanding the team by adding fractions of WTE staff to many practices, makes co-ordinating that team more complex, without solving the recruitment needs.

The new contract in rural areas might mean many more clinical staff each offering only a tenth of a whole time equivalent each, never meeting to form a team. Accommodation for small rural teams doesn’t include space for expanded teams, and there seems to be no plan to address this.

The new contract does not seem to address deep-end health inequality either; their patients suffer from multimorbidity at an earlier age, before funding catches up. Their barriers to engagement and access may be societal rather than geographical, but poverty in both settings makes it harder to overcome those barriers.

The new contract cannot be accommodated easily in rural practice, and many practices feel they stand to lose much of the work that they held in highest value, the ability to go further to address clinical need and provide patient centred care in patients’ own homes and communities.

CONCLUSION

Addressing health inequalities in Remote and Rural, and in Deep-end practices should not be an afterthought. Bolting on solutions after the fact doesn’t seem secure. Is Rural Health Care really an additional extra?

Health policy should address the needs of the most vulnerable people in our country. Addressing the challenges first means that provision is fit for all, not just for the central belt. This ‘Rural First, Deep-end first’ approach is appropriate in many ways, from consultation, to creating policy and developing infrastructure.

Consultation for hard-to-reach areas needs to be more enquiring, more inclusive, more investigative. Relying on representatives means that only the views of a politically minded few are heard. Most GPs are in the service to provide health care, and as our ranks are depleted, fewer and fewer find time to get engaged in political lobbying and research.

Scotland sets itself out as a country where the Government listens to GPs, a country where it is the best place in Britain to be a GP. For those GPs who are working in the poorest, most deprived, most rural, most remote areas, these aspirations are not yet being met. Whatever we set out for the people of Scotland, it should work as well for the people of Barra, as for Barrhead and Bearsden.

REFERENCES:

  1. http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2018/03/6040/5 (accessed 06.06.2018)
  2. http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2011/09/29133747/2 (accessed 06.06.2018)
  3. http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2018/04/4249/0 (accessed 06.06.2018)
  4. https://www.eas.org.uk/en/fuel-poverty-overview_50439/ (accessed 14.10.2018)
  5. http://ruralgp.com/2017/12/mapping-out-the-proposed-scottish-gpcontract-allocation-formula/ (Accessed 15/10/2018)

 

Hebridean glitches

Today I was going to meet up with Carmen Morrison from the Western Isles branch of the Scottish Health Council. She was also planning to get to Barra for a meeting, and because of the Autumnal Gales, the meeting didn’t happen – the Sound of Barra is not very nice in a storm.

Carmen was involved in drafting the SHC’s report on Realistic Medicine and has a lot of experience when it comes to involving the public. I shall have to pick a day when it is not stormy for our next planned meeting.

What is realistic medicine?

I think I have been putting off writing this particular post: I know what realistic medicine means to me, but it is a protean concept. I can add all sorts of bright ideas into the mix, or understand it differently depending on my perspective. Putting it down on paper feels like pinning down a butterfly. The infographic below sums up some of the key concepts. First off, I should tell you my back-ground.

Most of my recent career as a General Practitioner has been about practicing evidence-based medicine. This is medicine based on what research tells us works best for particular conditions. The 2004 GP contract was heavily invested in ensuring that primary care was based on evidence; GPs were awarded points for meeting targets of good quality, and points became financial prizes. For many long-term conditions, a recipe of pills, a suite of targets were created, and like the bright, competitive people we are, we raced to be the best. For some of our patients, this will have improved their health.

But people are individuals, and not everyone benefits from every intervention. We’ve all had that patient who has struggled, brought low by the burden of their ill-health, and their worries about our targets. Each one of us will be able to bring to mind the cancer patient who has gone for the fourth-line treatment, when in our hearts, we want them to understand that comfort, dignity, and spending time with family, may be more realistic than potentially harmful, wasteful treatment, chasing false hope.

And there is that word: realistic. This is not about disregarding the guidelines. It is about remembering that we are treating people, trying to achieve the best outcome for individuals.

how do we practice realistic medicine

So, is realistic medicine about what is achievable? Or must it include what is desirable for the individual? Who decides where the balance is? To be able to provide the best support to a patient who is deciding between many options, we need to create a bond of trust, where all the relevant facts are known, the variables balanced, the good and not so good possible outcomes evaluated, the risks evaluated in a way that is relevant to the patient. The decisions are a joint responsibility, and we need to be clear, to be realistic about what treatments can achieve. Realistic Medicine aims to be holistic, to put the patient at the heart of decision-making about their care.

Tied up in our ideas of realistic medicine is the concept of unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved. What is unrealistic? And where is the harm? There is harm in over-treating diabetes in older type 2 diabetics, quite clear-cut. There is harm in over-treatment when unrealistic hope for a cure is not openly discussed. There is harm in wasting resources on treatments that have little value to the patient, or undertaking unnecessary tests that produce anxiety about results.

Growing with the concept of Realistic Medicine is the concept of value. Value brings with it the sound of money. This is not about cutting costs, though. This is about avoiding waste, about providing the best we can with the resources we have. In many cases, redesigning services releases capacity for much more appropriate care. In others, the care that is given is more valued for being personalised and appropriate.This can be a realistic approach to the use of our resources, our time, our clinicians.

Values are also about what we hold dear ourselves, about what we aspire to be as clinicians; honest and trustworthy, kind and compassionate, bold and courageous. We can advocate for a fairer health-care system that delivers care that meets the needs of the population, that adds value through better processes. We can seek innovation and improvement, better leadership, a supportive and empathic workforce culture.

While I was thinking of all of this, I had an epiphany, that this is not just about clinicians, about the clinical workforce and the NHS. This is about everyone. To have these expectations about how we work, we need a common language and understanding, not just between colleagues, but in all our conversations. Patients move through the NHS, spreading their expectations across departments, wards, and amongst their families and society. They can spread ideas through networks, infiltrate clinics and inspire new ways of working, if we empower them. That is a big ask – data shows that while over 90% of people say they are comfortable about asking clinicians about their treatment, only a half to two thirds have actually done this at all.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. If I can bring the values of realistic medicine to a small practice population, empower people before they become patients, and coach them into getting the best out of their clinical encounters, we can contribute to this cultural shift to Realistic Medicine.

Next up – the Scottish Health Council – working with the general public.

 

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

I am a GP in Benbecula, in the Outer Hebrides, and I have been working here for over 25 years. I’ve been discussing the Chief Medical Officer’s Annual Reports with colleagues, and I’m very enthusiastic about the theme she is pursuing.

The main theme is ‘Realistic Medicine’ – and I’m not finding it easy to describe this in a short blog paragraph. However, if we are all to realise and practice Realistic Medicine, then patients may well be the people who, as they move through the NHS, ask the right questions and work with staff to create an NHS with realistic goals and values.

My idea is to see if we can bring the concepts of Realistic Medicine to our small population, and empower people to spread the concepts along their clinical journeys. And if it works here, it could work in other places as well.

The actual reports are listed here. In my next post, I’m going to try and tell you what Realistic Medicine means to me.

Part 1: Realistic Medicine 2014-15

Part 2: Realising Realistic Medicine 2015-16

Part 3: Practicing Realistic Medicine 2016-17

View from my desk – a view to inspire contemplation.