Category: Health

How well does the NHS Health Check Programme reach under-served groups?

A study from my department published in the journal BMC Health Services Research assessed how effective the NHS Health Check Programme was in reaching under-served groups.

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of premature mortality and a major contributor of health inequalities in England. Compared to more affluent and white counterparts, deprived people and ethnic minorities tend to die younger due to preventable CVD associated with lifestyle. In addition, deprived, ethnic minorities and younger people are less likely to be served by CVD prevention services. This study assessed the effectiveness of community-based outreach providers in delivering England’s National Health Services (NHS) Health Check programme, a CVD preventive programme to under-served groups.

Between January 2008 and October 2013, community outreach providers delivered a preventive CVD programme to 50,573 individuals, in their local communities, in a single consultation without prescheduled appointments. Community outreach providers operated on evenings and weekends as well as during regular business hours in venues accessible to the general public. After exclusion criteria, we analysed and compared socio-demographic data of 43,177 Health Check attendees with the general population across 38 local authorities (LAs).

Using Index of Multiple Deprivation, the mean deprivation score of the population reached by community outreach providers was 6.01 higher (p < 0.05) than the general population. Screened populations in 29 of 38 LAs were significantly more deprived (p < 0.05). No statistically significant difference among ethnic minority groups was observed between LAs. Nonetheless some LAs – namely Leicester, Thurrock, Sutton, South Tyneside, Portsmouth and Gateshead were very successful in recruiting ethnic minority groups. The mean proportion of men screened was 11.39% lower (p < 0.001) and mean proportion of 40–49 and 50–59 year olds was 9.98% and 3.58% higher (p < 0.0001 and p < 0.01 respectively) than the general population across 38 LAs.

We concluded that community-based outreach providers effectively reach under-served groups by delivering preventive CVD services to younger, more deprived populations, and a representative proportion of ethnic minority groups. If the programme is successful in motivating the under-served groups to improve lifestyle, it may reduce health inequalities.

Changes in the Roles of Health Care Professionals in Primary Care in England’s National Health Service

In an article published in the Journal of Ambulatory Care Management, Dr Sonia Kumar and I discuss the change in the roles of doctors and other health professionals in England’s NHS. Primary care in England has seen a slow but steady expansion in the roles and numbers of non-medical health care professionals over the last 50 years. In the next 5 to 10 years, the use of non-medical professionals will expand rapidly in primary care, with currently unknown consequences for patient outcomes and England’s NHS. Doctors in England will find their traditional professional autonomy slowly decreasing as they increasingly work in multi-professional teams; and the education and professional development of our medical students and doctors need to change to reflect these new ways of working.

A further challenge (and opportunity) for doctors arises from the rapid advances we are seeing in information technology. Through the Internet and Web sites such as NHS Choices, patients in the United Kingdom now have easy access to medical information. We are also now seeing developments in artificial intelligence (AI) leading to alternative routes for accessing medical and health promotion advice. For example, the NHS has now begun trialing AI-based “chatbots” that will be used to offer health advice to patients when they contact the NHS telephone advice line (NHS 111) for medical advice. If these trials are successful, we may see a rapid development in the capabilities and use of AI-driven health chatbots in England and elsewhere.

Health Effects of Overweight and Obesity in 195 Countries

Globally, more than 2 billion children and adults suffer from health problems related to being overweight or obese, and an increasing percentage of people die from these health conditions, according to a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, to which I contributed.

They are dying even though they are not technically considered obese. Of the 4.0 million deaths attributed to excess body weight in 2015, nearly 40% occurred among  people whose body mass index (BMI) fell below the threshold considered “obese.”

The findings represent “a growing and disturbing global public health crisis,” according to the authors of the paper published today in The New England Journal of Medicine.  In the UK, nearly a quarter of the adult population – 24.2% or 12 million people – is considered obese. Additionally, 1 million British children are obese, comprising 7.5% of all children in the UK.

Among the 20 most populous countries, the highest level of obesity among children and young adults was in the United States at nearly 13%; Egypt topped the list for adult obesity at about 35%. Lowest rates were in Bangladesh and Vietnam, respectively, at 1%. China with 15.3 million and India with 14.4 million had the highest numbers of obese children; the United States with 79.4 million and China with 57.3 million had the highest numbers of obese adults in 2015.

The study was reported by many media outlets including the Guardian and CBS News.

NHS England’s plan to reduce wasteful and ineffective drug prescriptions

I published an article in the British Medical Journal in August 2017 on NHS England’s plan to reduce wasteful and ineffective drug prescriptions. In the article, I explain why national rules on prescribing are a better approach than the variable local policies being implemented by clinical commissioning groups (CCGs, the NHS organisations responsible for funding local health services).

The National Health Service (NHS) in England must produce around £22 billion of efficiency savings by 2020. A key component of the NHS budget in England is primary care prescribing costs, currently around £9.2 billion annually. Inevitably, the NHS has begun to look at the drugs prescribed by general practitioners to identify areas in which savings could be made; ideally without compromising patient care or worsening health inequalities. This process was initially led by CCGs, focusing on drugs that are either of limited clinical value or which patients can buy from retailers without a prescription (referred to in England as ‘over the counter’ preparations).[1]

However, this local-based approach is flawed.[2] Firstly, CCGs have no legal power to limit the prescribing of drugs by general practitioners. As CCG policies on restricting prescriptions are not backed by statutory guidance, this will inevitably lead to variation between general practitioners in the use of the drugs that CCGs are proposing to restrict, thereby leading to ‘postcode prescribing’. It also raises legal issues in that if there is a complaint about a refusal to issue a prescription, it will be the general practitioner who will have to defend any complaint made by the patient and not the CCG. Each CCG carrying its own evidence review, public and professional consultation, and developing its own implementation policy also results in duplication of effort and is a poor use of NHS resources.[3]

NHS England has now launched its own consultation process to identify areas where ‘wasteful or ineffective’ prescribing can be reduced.[4] However, although a national process is better than local processes, NHS England has not stopped CCGs from continuing to roll-out their own restrictions on prescribing, even though some of these will inevitably conflict with the guidance produced by NHS England when it completes its consultation process.

In its consultation document, NHS England proposes restrictions on prescribing for a range of drugs. Stopping prescribing in some areas – such as homeopathy and herbal remedies – will not be controversial but will also not save much money. Some other drugs that NHS England is proposing to restrict, such as liothyronine, have limited evidence for their benefits but some patients do find them useful, and there will be resistance from patients and from some clinicians about the proposed restrictions on their use.

The two most controversial areas will be around NHS prescriptions for gluten-free foods, for which there was a separate consultation;[5] and NHS prescriptions for drugs available over the counter. In the case of gluten-free foods, these are essential for people with coeliac disease and although gluten-free foods are now much more widely available from retailers than in the past, many patients with coeliac disease continue to receive NHS prescriptions and will resist strongly any restrictions on the availability of gluten-free foods through the NHS[6]. For drugs available over the counter, for example treatments for headlice or hay-fever, many patients will be able to pay for them out-of-pocket. Some poorer patients though will struggle with the costs of buying such drugs.

NHS England is to be congratulated for launching its public consultation and not just leaving decisions about eligibility for NHS treatment to individual CCGs.[7] However, it needs to ensure that its recommendations are accepted by CCGs and that the restrictions on prescribing that some CCGs are trying to impose fall into line with national recommendations. NHS England also needs to make the necessary changes to the National General Practice Contract and to the NHS Drugs Tariff to ensure that any prescribing restrictions it imposes have a firm legal basis. If this is not done, it places general practitioners in the invidious position of being at clinical and legal risk if they adopt NHS England’s prescribing guidance when this is finally published, at a time when they are already under considerable workload pressure.[8,9]

Restrictions on prescribing and the reduced availability of drug treatments on the NHS will have adverse consequences. For example, there is a risk of unintended effects such as codeine-based analgesics being used in place of simpler analgesics like paracetamol or Ibuprofen if the use of the latter is restricted. We also need to ensure that prescribing restrictions do not affect patients with very serious conditions. For example, if restrictions are imposed on NHS prescriptions of laxatives because these are available to buy from retailers, this will impact on patients with cancer, in whom constipation is a common and distressing symptom.

There will also be a risk that poorer patients, who are less able to pay for their own medication, will suffer disproportionately from these restrictions, thereby exacerbating health and social inequalities.[10] Ultimately, however, politicians  and the public must understand that the financial savings the NHS in England needs to make are so large, they cannot be made without substantial cuts to the provision of publicly-funded health services; and without patients making a greater financial contribution to the costs of their health care.[11,12]

doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j3679

References
1. North West London Collaboration of Clinical Commissioning Groups. Choosing wisely – changing the way we prescribe. https://www.healthiernorthwestlondon.nhs.uk/news/2017/06/12/choosing-wisely-changing-way-we-prescribe
2. Iacobucci G. Doctors call for national rules on OTC prescribing. BMJ 2017;356:j1442
3. Phizackerley D. National approach to OTC prescribing is needed. BMJ 2017;357:j1849.
4. NHS England. Items which should not be routinely prescribed in primary care: a consultation on guidance for CCGs. https://www.engage.england.nhs.uk/consultation/items-routinely-prescribed/
5. Department of Health. Availability of gluten-free foods on NHS prescription. https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/availability-of-gluten-free-foods-on-nhs-prescription
6. Kurien M, Sleet S, Sanders DS, Cave J. Should gluten-free foods be available on prescription? BMJ 2017;356:i6810.
7. Iacobucci G. NHS to stop funding homeopathy and some drugs in targeted savings drive BMJ 2017;358:j3560.
8. British Medical Association. BMA responds to NHS England action plan on wasteful drug use. https://www.bma.org.uk/news/media-centre/press-releases/2017/july/bma-responds-to-nhs-england-action-plan-on-wasteful-drug-use
9. Majeed A. Shortage of general practitioners in the NHS. BMJ 2017;358:j3191.
10. Gleed G. Commentary: We’re under financial strain without prescriptions for gluten-free food. BMJ 2017;356:j119.
11. Toynbee P. Feet first, our NHS is limping towards privatization. The Guardian, 16 August 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/16/feet-nhs-limping-towards-privatisation-podiatry-diabetic-amputations
12. Iacobucci G. GPs urge BMA to explore copayments for some services. BMJ 2017;357:j2503.

Interview with the British Medical Journal

The BMJ published an interview with me earlier this year for their ‘Observations‘ section.

What was your earliest ambition?
As a boy I was keen to be a pilot. My poor eyesight put an end to that ambition.

Who has been your biggest inspiration?
Two of my former consultants, James Stuart and Keith Cartwright, who mentored me early in my career, helped me write my first scientific papers, and started me on my academic career path.

What was the worst mistake in your career?
Early in my career I admitted a man who had undergone some changes in behaviour after a minor head injury. I did not consider ordering a CT scan immediately, but fortunately my senior registrar did, and a diagnosis of a subdural haematoma was made. The patient underwent surgery that evening and had a good outcome.

What was your best career move?
Moving to London in the 1990s to take up my first academic post. Although I was unsure about moving to such a large city, having always lived in much smaller towns, working in London opened up many professional and academic opportunities to me.

Who has been the best and the worst health secretary in your lifetime?
William Waldegrave and Frank Dobson both tried their best for the NHS. Those who followed them, from Alan Milburn onwards, have been far less successful.

Who is the person you would most like to thank, and why?My wife, for supporting me in my personal and professional life.

To whom would you most like to apologise?
The patients in my medical practice. As an academic GP I see them only one day a week. Because of this, many of my patients think I work only part time and have a very easy life. I can assure them that I do work full time.

If you were given £1m what would you spend it on?
Education is the key to development, so I would use the money to support university scholarships in a low income country.

Where are or were you happiest?
I am happiest when on holiday with my family in Pembrokeshire, which I visit regularly.

What single unheralded change has made the most difference in your field in your lifetime?
The development of the internet and the rapid and easy access to medical information it has made possible for patients, clinicians, and academics.

What book should every doctor read?
The Citadel by A J Cronin. Though it was published in 1937, its core messages are still relevant to doctors. For a non-medical book I would recommend The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz del Castillo, a fascinating contemporary account of the overthrow of the Aztec empire by the Spanish and their local allies.

What poem, song, or passage of prose would you like mourners at your funeral to hear?“Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Chocolate. But don’t tell my patients.

What television programmes do you like?
When I have time I enjoy watching scientific, historical, and current affairs programmes.

What is your most treasured possession?
My family and friends. All the material objects I own can be replaced.

What, if anything, are you doing to reduce your carbon footprint?
I am taking far fewer overseas trips and hence flying a lot less now than in the past. I have also switched my house to LED lights.

What personal ambition do you still have?
General practice and the rest of the NHS are going through a very difficult period. I would like to see my general practice continue to provide high quality, accessible care to the people of Clapham.

Summarise your personality in three words
Honest, conscientious, logical.

What is your pet hate?
Politicians who do not base policy on evidence. Many of the problems we now face in the NHS are because of this.

What would be on the menu for your last supper?
A salmon starter, followed by roast chicken with vegetables, and finished off with bread and butter pudding.

Do you have any regrets about becoming a doctor and an academic?
No. I am very grateful that I have had the opportunity to be an academic doctor. Being an academic and a clinician opened a tremendous career path for me.

If you weren’t in your present position what would you be doing instead?
If I weren’t a doctor I would have probably pursued a career in a field such as information technology or accountancy.

The divergence of minimum unit pricing policy across the UK

A paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine discusses the implementation of a minimum unit pricing policy across the UK. Above recommended levels of intake, alcohol use is associated with harm including hypertension, haemorrhagic stroke, liver disease, mental health disorders and cancers, as well as accidents, injuries and assaults. The 2015 UK Global Burden of Disease study indicates that 2.9% of disability-adjusted life years and 1.9% of mortality are attributable to alcohol use, and the 2013 Health Survey for England found that 23% of men and 16% of women in England drink at levels associated with risk to health. Despite the ongoing discussion about minimum unit pricing policy across the UK, and although it is difficult to predict what it would take for the Westminster Government to revert to a minimum unit pricing policy, any minimum unit pricing policy that does come to be implemented in Scotland or England and Wales will only be implemented because the relevant evidence exists.

Read the full article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

Key priority areas for developing a patient safety improvement strategy in Libya

A paper published in the journal BMJ Open describes a protocol for a study examining patient safety in Libya. Patient safety is a global public health problem. Estimates and size of the problem of patient safety in low-income and developing countries are scarce. A systems approach is needed for ensuring that patients are protected from harm while receiving care. The primary objective of this study will be to use a consensus-based approach to identify the key priority areas for patient safety improvement in Libya as a developing country.using a modified Delphi approach.

A three-phase modified Delphi study will be conducted using an anonymous web-based questionnaires. 15 international experts in the field of patient safety will be recruited to prioritise areas of patient safety that are vital to developing countries such as Libya. The participants will be given the opportunity to rank a list of elements on five criteria. The participants will also be asked to list five barriers that they believe hinder the implementation of patient safety systems. Descriptive statistics will be used to evaluate consensus agreement, including percentage agreement and coefficient of variation. Kendall’s coefficient of concordance will be used to evaluate consensus across all participants.

DOI http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2016-014770

Prioritizing medication safety in the care of people with cancer

A recent study from Imperial College London published in the Journal of Global Health examined clinicians’ views on main problems and solutions in medication safety in the care of people with cancer. The top ranked problems focused on patients’ poor understanding of treatments due to language or education difficulties, clinicians’ insufficient attention to patients’ psychological distress, and inadequate information sharing among health care providers. The top ranked solutions were provision of guidance to patients and their carers on what to do when unwell, pre–chemotherapy work–up for all patients, and better staff training.

The School of Public Health joins the UK’s effort to tackle global health challenges

The School of Public Health at Imperial College London has been awarded funding as part of a UK drive to tackle global health challenges. The work is funded by Research Councils UK as part of the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), a £1.5 billion fund launched by the UK government in 2015. The fund aims to support cutting-edge research which addresses the global issues faced by developing countries in areas including agriculture, medicine, well-being and infrastructure.

The GCRF funding will also enable Imperial Professors Azeem Majeed, Toby Prevost and Mala Rao to investigate low cost technologies for screening for diabetic eye disease, a leading cause of blindness in India, in partnership with clinicians from Moorfield’s Eye Hospital in London. Professor Mala Rao, who is leading Imperial’s contribution to the project, said: “This award offers a very exciting opportunity for us to work together to transform the lives of people with diabetes and diabetic eye disease in particular, not only in India but worldwide, and to reduce the costs of diabetic eye screening in the NHS. We are thankful for this amazing chance to make a difference.” The project lead is Professor Sobha Sivaprasad from Moorfield’s Hospital in London.

Advice on the management of the transgender patient in primary care

A recent article in the journal BJGP Open provides advice on the management of transgender patients in primary care. With referrals to gender identity clinics rising rapidly, general practitioners (GPs) and primary care physicians are more likely to meet patients who are transgender (whose gender identity, or internal sense of gender, does not match their gender assigned at birth) or diagnosed with gender dysphoria (the severe psychological distress that is experienced by an individual as a result of the conflict between their gender identity and gender assigned at birth).1 Teaching on transgender medicine is lacking in both undergraduate and postgraduate curricula, leading to a perceived lack of expertise in this area. Furthermore, General Medical Council (GMC) guidelines on the GP’s role in prescribing are vague, resulting in some controversy. As waiting times for appointments at specialist clinics are often at least 18 months, GPs and primary care physicians will increasingly be involved in the initiation of the transition process: this is the process by which an individual changes their phenotypic appearance of gender to match their gender identity through medications and/or surgery.

Some of the actions advised:

  • Ensure the patient’s electronic record is updated with the correct pronoun and patient’s desired name.
  • Outline potential treatment options to include psychological therapy, speech and language therapy, hormones, and surgery.
  • Discuss with the patient a direct referral to a specialist gender identity clinic, advising that wait times are often lengthy.
  • Explain that initiating medications is usually done by the specialist gender identity team or under their advice, then discuss medication side-effects and risks.
  • If the individual is distressed or experiencing mental ill health, discuss a referral to the community mental health team.
  • If the patient is self-medicating, consider specialist advice from an endocrinologist.
  • Discuss smoking cessation if the patient is a smoker, or weight loss if they are overweight.
  • Provide the individual with advice on websites or support groups for transgender people.

The full article can be read in BJGP Open.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.3399/bjgpopen17X101001