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Successfully adapting best practice – Nigel Edwards

During 2015-16, the new care models programme, in partnership with NHS Confederation’s EU office, linked up with leading EU care model professionals to share and adapt good practice for the improvement of local care models. Today, as the programme hosts the Adapting International Care Models Conference, the Chief Executive of the Nuffield Trust reflects on the complex challenges and opportunities that often arise when replicating international good practice.

The NHS has a history of interest in other health systems, although there has been a bias towards English speaking countries.

There have been many visits and case studies and there is often enthusiasm for what has been found.  However, it has frequently proved rather more difficult to replicate the models than might have been hoped and it is worth reflecting on why.

Context and history may be more important than we like to think, and we should consider whether these created an environment that was a key factor in the foundation or growth of the model.  It’s striking that there can be some important elements of the context and history that are simply taken for granted.  For example the fate of the original PFI deal at Alzira or the origins and history of Kaiser Permanente and its medical group model.

Starting points matter – for example moving from a system of fee for service with little primary care to a capitation model with a medical home is likely to have a much more significant impact on admissions and costs than moving from a traditional GP contract to a Multi-specialty Community Provider.  Having said that, as Mary Dixon-Woods points out, if your intervention fails, it might not be the context – it could be how you implemented the programme.

Some models have represented a new and significant departure from the existing way of working from day one, others have grown or evolved over time to look quite different.  The new creations required some clear space, the exit of previous incumbents or the ability to operate without regulatory or other interference.

This is more than a bit of double running and the inability of the NHS to remove incumbents or create sufficient space has been a major obstacle.

The importance of elapsed time has also often been neglected. The NHS has a history of assuming it can implement changes in half the time and with a quarter of the resource used elsewhere.  Although many of the new models have starting points, some have evolved and all of them seem to have developed and improved their operating models over time.

These models often seem to have different types of relationships, for example between specialists and GPs (e.g. Kaiser Permanente), between payers and providers (Alzira), between intermediaries, physicians and insurers (Gezundes Kinzigtal) and within teams and the wider organisation (Buurtzorg).   These take time to develop and it may not be possible to truncate this by programme management and exhortation.

Since the trick to adopting models is to adapt them to the local context, it is important to be able to identify the underlying design principles that are the active ingredients that make the difference.  This is not always as easy as it seems as the models are highly complex.  It is even harder in the absence of a good conceptual framework for describing them.

A further issue is that it may be that there are a number of these active ingredients and that they all need to be in place together and be reliably executed 99.9% of the time in ways that fit the local context.  A complicating issue here is the use of terms such as care navigator and Multi-Disciplinary Teams that conceal a vast range of different definitions, philosophies and methodologies.

I would suggest one other hypothesis that adds to the difficulty.  While every report stresses the importance of leadership, I think that this story is incomplete as well as being insultingly obvious.  Firstly, in a number of cases the role of particular individuals is a key and unavoidable part of the story.  They often have a strong personal and values based motivation to create change and have had a combination of being in the right place, with the right support, at the right time.  This is not a claim for a heroic or charismatic model of leadership but individuals matter, their contribution can be pivotal and ignoring this can mean that the difficulty of the task may be underestimated.

Secondly, the other part of the leadership story is how far a number of the models rely on the boring, repetitive and unglamorous work for developing a reliable operating model and making sure it runs reliably 24/7.

We should be looking for new models and ways to learn but a more critical, analytic and realistic approach may be required.


Nigel Edwards has been Chief Executive of the Nuffield Trust since 2014. Previously he was an expert advisor with KPMG’s Global Centre of Excellence for Health and Life Sciences and a Senior Fellow at The King’s Fund.

Nigel was Policy Director of the NHS Confederation for 11 years and has a wealth of experience in health and social care. He joined the organisation from his former role as Director of the London Health Economics Consortium at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where he remains an honorary visiting professor.

He has a strong interest in new models of service delivery and a practical focus on what is happening at the front line as well as a wealth of experience in wider health care policy in the UK and internationally.

Nigel is a well-known media commentator, often in the spotlight debating key policy issues and is currently working with the WHO Regional Office for Europe and the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies on developments in health care provision in Europe.

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3 comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Very informative and useful.

  2. kevin riley says:

    You continue to ignore ,quite disgracefully, the reality that none of your improvements can be guaranteed to be taken on board by the now legally independent NHS Foundation Trusts and their is nothing that NHS England can do to force them to do so.

    Sir David Nicholson confirmed the above reality when defending his inability to force these now “legally” independent Trusts to stop using “gagging clauses” – see the record of his evidence in this respect on the Health Select Committee Ctteee website.

    Kevin S. Riley Solicitor

  3. Thanks for a really helpful reflection, Nigel. Perhaps Bananarama had it – “it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it”? Our experience of implementing innovations from elsewhere repeatedly takes me to the need to build understanding and skills to address the “how” of change, more than seeking to copy other people’s “what”.