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The problem with rational approaches to reforming the NHS


Several papers with a common theme published between May and August 2002 are drawn together to present a research-informed critique of economic logic present within recent NHS reform. They attempt to persuade the reader that excessive faith in predictive systems of thought that are underpinned by theories of rational behaviour is misplaced within the NHS. They suggest rational economic theory makes some problematic assumptions about human and individual behaviour. The problem is that there are many modes of thought at work within the NHS, and not all of these cogs are turned by economic rationality.

Increasingly, over the last 10 years or so, economic concepts have become more and more prominent in the NHS. Their influence has gone beyond finance becoming a dominant issue. In addition to budgets, contracts and cost itemisation, theoretical relationships of supply and demand are now called upon to change professional behaviour. A new framework for the NHS has been built which is developing market forces. The papers provide some insight into whether the systems set in place to produce a patient-centred service do so in a meaningful way.

The first paper examines an emerging primary care group (PCG). Now part of primary care trusts, PCGs were a lynchpin of new economic relationships in the new NHS. Community based, in theory PCGs take decisions made about healthcare resources closer to the patient for whom they are a proxy demander and shaper of services. To what extent do PCGs fulfil this role? The first paper is based on data collected during an in-depth 2 year observation study to test the applicability of health economics to healthcare organisations. It examines the early experience of commissioning services for coronary heart disease (CHD).

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