The wrong way to fix the NHS

A senior surgeon says Jeremy Hunt’s NHS reforms will do more harm than good

17 August 2013

9:00 AM

17 August 2013

9:00 AM

Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, is a decent and well-meaning man. He’s genuinely excited about the new, radical reforms planned for the NHS which he announced last weekend. I have been told that Hunt and his old friend David Cameron see this restructuring of the NHS as the next great step, as significant and successful as Gove’s education reform; something the Prime Minister will be remembered for gratefully in 100 years’ time. I’m afraid they’re wrong. If implemented as announced, these plans will be both expensive and ineffective.

The main trouble is that Hunt’s NHS revamp will rely on a vast, integrated and enormously complicated IT system. The idea is that eventually all patients’ electronic records will be available ‘at a click’. But governments just aren’t competent to deliver or commission this sort of grand IT project —- as we’ve seen time and again. Yes, of course it sounds like a great idea: ‘making the health service paperless by 2018’. But we’ve been here before. NHS Connect cost the taxpayer £13 billion before it was abandoned as unworkable and technically impossible. Long after that scheme was dropped, we are still committed to pay the IT supplier another billion pounds. This is how bad the government is at writing contracts. In a utopian health service, nationwide electronic patient records might be a good idea. In practice, ask yourself why they have never been adopted by any other country with a health service comparable to ours.

The NHS can manage well without them. In the non-emergency situation, the general practitioner referring the patient should give an account of past medical history. In the emergency situation, the patient can almost always provide an adequate amount of medical history. Most know the names and doses of the drugs they are taking. If not, they usually carry a ‘repeat prescription’ list with them.

If Hunt and Cameron are really looking to repeat the success of education reform, perhaps they should consider that one of the first things Michael Gove did was to extract the Department for Education from any complicated, top-down IT schemes on the grounds that Whitehall would be bound to mess it up. Quite apart from that, the NHS just doesn’t have another £13 billion to waste.

Jeremy Hunt’s next big idea is a people-pleaser: bring back the good old traditional family doctor, with GPs once again taking on responsibility for our-of-hours care. Now, everyone is sentimental about old-fashioned GPs, not least the BMA and the Royal College of General Practitioners (without the on-call part). You can just imagine Mr Cameron on holiday, relaxing into a happy reverie about his legacy as the man who brought back ‘Dr Finlay’. But Dr Finlay just doesn’t work in the modern world. Far from bringing him back, we need to retire him and think again.

The trouble with GPs is that they work in group practices, geographically and professionally isolated from the mainstream of hospital medicine. Over the past few decades, modern medicine has been revolutionised by technology, little of which has filtered down into general practice. GPs cannot carry out certain essential tests quickly. Although there are many exceptions, it is very easy for GPs to become ‘de-skilled’, and by mid-career some may not be well enough informed to manage serious acute illnesses. In addition, most GPs fail to provide the services which patients most value — namely, timely and convenient access as well as continuity of care. These deficiencies are most acute in inner cities and deprived areas. There is no incentive in general practice to improve performance or efficiency.

No wonder, then, that patients with acute problems prefer to go to A&E. It’s not that they can’t be bothered to wait for an appointment; it’s because GP services aren’t good enough — which is why A&E units are at breaking point. In A&E a patient will be seen by a junior hospital doctor whose knowledge is contemporary, and who will probably be studying for a postgraduate examination. That A&E doctor will have immediate access to urgent tests and, if necessary, will be able to escalate the problem for more senior and experienced advice. This is how acutely ill patients need and deserve to be treated.

So if GPs aren’t the answer, what is? Well, to cope with the increasing workload in hospitals and to improve services to patients, clinical nurse specialists and advanced nurse practitioners have been appointed and have transformed the scene. They are highly qualified and skilled professionals and would be ideal in general practice to run screening and immunisation programmes, child development, care of the elderly and many other services.

In addition, the role of GPs must change. They must train and work differently. They could adopt a hybrid role working mostly in A&E and benefiting from the nourishing environment of mainstream hospital medicine. This template would prevent de-skilling and would maintain professional and academic acumen. It would transform primary care. It would also solve two of the biggest manpower problems in the NHS.


If, as I hope, Mr Hunt is smart enough to see the errors in his current plans and make some swift changes, then here’s another urgent problem he could solve: we need more British doctors. Most readers will be surprised to learn that every year, we import 40 per cent of our doctors because of insufficient training places in British medical schools. Most applicants to UK medical schools are rejected despite having the required A-level grades. We encourage young people to become doctors, then we slap them back for want of places. Currently, the General Medical Council registers approximately 13,000 new doctors every year; 7,000 come from British medical schools, and the remainder come from other EU countries and from outside the EU. So 40 per cent of doctors starting work in the NHS every year have little or no knowledge and experience of British culture or of our health service — and this in the most -people-centric occupation of all. It really does matter.

You can see why the situation has arisen. The government doesn’t want to pay for thousands more expensive places in British medical schools, and from the foreign doc’s perspective, working for the NHS is a bonanza. As primary medical qualifications are recognised reciprocally across the EU, doctors from every EU country have the automatic right to register with the GMC. European doctors fly in for weekends to cover locum vacancies, especially in general practice.

There is no test of language proficiency before registering. As a result of austerity in southern Europe, there has been a significant increase in GMC registrations of newly qualified doctors from Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal and especially from eastern Europe.

Importing doctors from abroad on a regular and ongoing basis might not be a bad thing if there were any guarantee that the entry criteria to all foreign medical schools were as rigorous and as discriminating as our own. Also, that the quality of teaching and training was always as comprehensive as ours. But too often, it isn’t. A GMC survey published in the British Medical Journal recently showed that foreign-trained doctors were up to four times more likely to be suspended or struck off than their UK colleagues. Dr Peter Rubin, GMC Chair, launching the second annual report in 2012, said, ‘Most people would prefer a health service run by doctors who have trained in the UK.’ Elsewhere in that report he remarks, ‘The diverse profile of doctors working in the UK brings challenges, not least in making sure that doctors interpret and apply our standards consistently, irrespective of when and where they were trained.’

Defenders of the system say there are filters in place to weed out dodgy doctors. But where was the filter that checked the competence of Dr Daniel Ubani, a Nigerian-born German citizen who on his first GP locum in UK unlawfully killed a 70-year-old man by administering ten times the maximum recommended dose of morphine?

Here’s a thought for Mr Hunt and Mr Cameron: ditch the useless IT scheme and spend the billions you save on training more British doctors. Yes, I know you may not see results before the next general election — or indeed the one after that. But you’re in it for the good of the country, yes? And this is an essential building block of a durable recovery for the NHS.

The reasons I believe in Mr Hunt’s good intentions, and think he still might make the reforms we actually need, is that he is so clearly on the right track in one respect. Last weekend he outlined a plan to ‘create a cadre of senior doctors, similar to school superheads’, trained to take over hospital trusts. This is an excellent suggestion and implies that Mr Hunt accepts the fact that hospital inspections alone will not improve standards.

It also suggests that Hunt understands that the answer to better clinical care is not more management. Clinical standards can only be improved by better training and inspired clinical leadership.

Currently it is rare to find clinicians at the heart of any hospital management structure. Mr Hunt’s intention to recruit more clinicians into management is groundbreaking. Clinicians in management will focus attention on patient care and away from esoteric managerial matters —- and surely that’s something everyone can applaud. Now let’s get on with the rest.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

J. Meirion Thomas is a professor of surgery and a consultant surgeon in the NHS.

Show comments
  • jaundicedi

    I met an English doctor on holiday, previously in GP practice, now training young docs at one of London’s most reputable med schools, of which she was inordinately proud. When I pointed out the inadequacy of some of her graduates (anecdotal I know but as a foreign trained doctor, shocking to me), she complained that they were expected to work long hours so when could they keep up with developments? This summarised what is wrong : doctors want to be civil servants not professionals, they have grabbed all the cash as an entitlement without taking responsibility for staying up to date, this aided and abetted by the GMC, the NHS and politicians. It’s a sinking ship : until there is a turn around in attitude and real professionalism is demanded and rewarded , it will continue to sink.

  • Margot

    Some sort of move to the 21st century is needed. At present there is hardly any communication between GPs and hospitals. There are vast armies of secretaries churning out snail mail full of archaic language some of it taking weeks – or months! – to arrive. Their salaries consume a huge part of the NHS budget and when asked for they are usually on holiday/at a coffee break/off sick etc with no-one wondering if their work practices are a good idea in 2013. The imaging services manage to send images across the country (but not to GPs) so it can be done.

  • anonymous

    General practice is the cornerstone of the NHS. Fortunately the government is slowly recognising this and hopefully investment will follow. Also, having communicating IT systems in different healthcare settings is achievable and would improve safety for patients while would help us collect valuable data so that we can evaluate services and commission appropriately.

  • anonymous

    I would argue that hospital specialists would benefit from coming out in the community in terms of learning to assess a patient holistically and stopping treating the disease but rather learning to treat the whole person. I would also argue that it is easier to train nurses to work in an acute setting because specialised conditions are more likely to fit in a protocol. It requires a lot of training and experience to be a good generalist. Having experienced GPs at the front line is what makes the NHS affordable and sustainable. We should be investing more on having highly trained GPs.

  • Grah101

    Letter to the Editor:

    Sir – Meirion Thomas presents an unfortunate and almost amusing utter lack of understanding of general practice in his ill-informed and sadly vacuous analysis (17th August 2013). The idea that hospital services – with their notorious waits for appointments usually measured in months and subject to regular changes, along with the clinician one sees, represents the model of continuity and rapid access that general practice should adopt is not convincing, to put it mildly.

    He repeats the misleading argument that if A&E departments at breaking point, it’s the GPs’ fault. It ignores the reality of the scale of activity – NHS England tell us that A&E departments and walk-in centres combined see approximately 50 000 patients per day – a drop in the ocean compared to the nearly a million consultations per day taking place in general practice. It also ignores the reality of funding reductions in general practice of around 10% per patient in real terms over the last ten years, compared to a approximate doubling of funding for hospitals.

    His comments about GPs’ training simply repeats the old mistake that doctors should train for one activity by doing another, often totally different job with very limited training value in hospital – jobs which are often simply a thinly disguised prop-up to hospital staffing. What exactly is wrong with Prof Thomas’s teaching of medical students in hospital, that he feels it should be repeated for several years in hospital after qualification? He would carry a little more credibility if his own Royal college had not in recent years shamefully objected to GP training being improved and lengthened.

    You have to sympathise to an extent with an embittered older hospital doctor who can’t understand why patient surveys routinely rate general practice above hospital services by a large margin, and can’t understand why managers run hospitals, not himself and his colleagues. Perhaps he should take the trouble to observe and learn from general practice to find out why.

    Dr Graham Wheatley


  • Marcus

    There are a few problems with this article:

    1. In the West coast of Scotland you will encounter many patients managed superbly by their GPs. GPs who only refer to hospital when necessary and manage all sorts of complicated patients very well in the community with the help of the nurse practitioners. There is no more cost effective worker in the NHS than a good GP.
    Bad ones however….

    2. The article also confuses EU doctors practising in the UK and the disproportionate number of malpractice cases against doctors from outside the EU.

    3. Doctors involved in management is great so long as their motivation remains clinical excellence and they’re not sucked in to the world of management targets and bureaucracy, lured by golden pensions, as so often happens.

  • Stelvio

    Hilarious; this is a spoof, right?

  • Fak_Zakaix

    It is funny because before the war and in the USA up to 1966 the was a Jewish quota for students in medical schools (and other specialisations). So Mr Thomas wants a revival of the numerus clausus policy this time with eastern Europeans in the place of Jews.

  • Percypottamus

    Professor Meirion Thomas clearly knows as much, if not less, about the realities of general practice as I know about surgical oncology. I invite him to spend a week in my surgery and find out what general practice does.

    Dr. John Leigh
    GP Tyne and Wear

  • Percypottamus

    Professor Meirion Thomas clearly knows as much, if not less, about the realities of general practice as I know about surgical oncology. I invite him to spend a week in my surgery and find out what general practice does.

    Dr. John Leigh
    GP Tyne and Wear

  • Bob339

    “Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, is a decent and well-meaning man.”
    Either you are:
    a] his mum
    b] a comedian
    c] educationally sub-normal
    I think we should be told.

  • marrer

    Supercilious grinning hall-witted toe-rag.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      “I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls,
      And each damp thing that creeps and crawls
      went wobble-wobble on the walls…”

      Lewis Carroll couldn`t have written it better.

  • If someone scrutinised MS and realised that 20 million pounds could be saved via a new direction of IVRs and wake up in UK to some real truths about this disease whats really going on and been hidden away for 150 years then this would make MS patients better instead of all the drugs that cause PML and deaths No one is brave enough to tackle . Its an utter disgrace and bad to the core

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Trash Culture UK is overloading the NHS. What do I mean by trash culture with respect to the NHS?
    Heavy drinking, heavy smoking, junk food, lack of exercise, teen pregnancy, violence/stupid behavior related injury, traffic accidents specifically where alcoholic beverage consumption was a factor …
    Describing the mainstream culture of Britain. Trash Culture UK.

    • Guest

      “Alcoholic beverage consumption”? You definitely need to go to school to brush up your grammar a bit!

  • Anup Shah

    Is this a joke? Seriously? The only thing which has any merit is the comment about NHS IT systems

    Professor Thomas is using his title to suggest to the lay public that he knows something about the interface of Primary and Secondary Care in running a health service. I would suggest to the emiment Professor that he go and read Barbara Starfield’s work out of Johns Hopkins University before talking about things about which he doesn’t know very much, then the Spectator could consider commissioning a new article just in case anyone believes the above.


    Thomas is spouting total nonsense. These are the ravings of a senile dinosaur. Ignore him Mr Hunt, his ideas are laughable. If Thomas’s work as a surgeon is as pitiful as his journalism, one must tremble for his patients …..

  • EchoSounder

    Two months ago, at around 12:30pm I gave a blood donation. At around 5:30pm I was in the back of an ambulance on my way to hospital for the first time ever after suffering a scary dizzy spell whilst riding my motorcycle home from work. The ambulance service and later the hospital service did every modern electronic test in the book but still couldn’t tell me what had happened to me i.e. heart, blood pressure, blood sugar indicator were all normal. The following day my GP within half a second of hearing the symptoms uttered the correct diagnosis VERTIGO (inner ear infection). Seems to me if you don’t know what’s wrong then see a GP, otherwise see a specialist?