Saturday, 18 May 2013

Public and private can make excellent bedfellows, especially in treating cancer

I was recently asked to write about the future for my latest blog in Health Insurance Magazine and I included a plea for increased cooperation between the public and private sectors. As I wrote ‘There are still some Neanderthals out there who subscribe to the public good, private bad mantra’

I experienced a fantastic example of private and public partnership a few weeks ago when I attended the launch of a molecular screening laboratory in London’s University College (UCL) Cancer Institute. The technical detail of this collaboration between Sarah Cannon, the cancer arm of Hospital Corporation of America (HCA) International and UCL Advanced Diagnostic, part of the UCL Cancer Institute is described in more detail in their press release:

This is the coming together of an NHS Hospital (UCL) and an American Healthcare company (HCA) to research and treat a range of cancers. The mission of this venture is to enable patients to ‘live with cancer’ through a patient centred approach. No this isn’t the ‘patient centred’ sound bite often quoted by politicians and health officials – this is personalised medicine - the patient focussed analysis which identifies the genetic drivers for specific cancers. In a nutshell, the genetic abnormality which triggers the cancer is identified through molecular profiling undertaken in this joint venture laboratory. The techniques used can now sequence multiple genes in the fraction of the time previously required. Traditional biopsy assessment can be supported with genetic pathway analysis leading to individual treatment regimes saving time, money and lives.

Multiple clinical trials will establish the appropriate treatment pathways and this cancer screening unit gains its income from a variety of sources including charities, research organisations, government funding and drug company sponsorship.

Patients, often with little hope of cure or even a short term future, will be given the lifeline of this molecular screening to find the best possible chance of addressing their genetic abnormality to offer an improvement in longevity and quality of life.

This laboratory is targeting 11 (rising to 35 by July) genetic abnormalities using samples collected from a traditional biopsy. Patients will be admitted to clinical trials from a variety of sources (NHS, research establishments and the private sector) and the initiative is, in my opinion, a significant good news story.

Several major points struck me as I attended this press launch.

Firstly, the genuine passion and commitment of the key clinicians and executives. If you have to face cancer, I can think of no better individuals to join your armoury for your personal battle. Backing professional conviction with hard facts and a heavy dose of realism, the clinical team from UCL and HCA and senior executives from Sarah Cannon seemed to find the right words to inspire and convince. Professor Chris Boshoff saying ‘the future is now available in this laboratory’ managed to avoid sensationalism in his tone and Dr Howard Burris, president of clinical operations at Sarah Cannon referred to this speeding up of tailored diagnosis as a ‘game changer as we speed up the development of novel therapies’. Exciting stuff.

The second key point was the space, manpower and technology available in the pristine laboratory premises. These impressive facilities simply could not have been provided by the public sector alone.

Thirdly, with disappointment I noted that one journalist (but only one I’m pleased to report) was intent on finding the downside of this development. She started her questioning with the comment ‘I’m sorry to be cynical but…’  Of course she wasn’t sorry at all as she harped on about the NHS not being able to fund this initiative and suggested that NHS patients would not be referred to the facility. Regular followers of healthcare news will know the high-circulation tabloid well – it constantly sensationalises health reports and often focusses on the bad, rather than good news stories. The speakers responded to her with courtesy and patience. The point which she chose to miss was that eligible NHS patients presenting with one of the cancers under investigation at the unit will be enlisted in clinical trials as appropriate. Their cancer tissue, collected from traditional sampling techniques can be sent to this laboratory for testing and their tumour signature identified within 7 days. The cost of this is marginal compared to the amount of money saved though inappropriate treatment and the human cost of repeat biopsies and wrong pathways. Add to this the income generated from funded research and additional sponsorship and this is a laudable public private venture.

Dr Burris struck a chord with me when he said that the biggest cost in drug development is time. This is also the most precious currency of any cancer patient. The ground-breaking molecular screening speeds up the voyage of discovery for cancer diagnosis and tailored therapy and can buy precious days, weeks and years for cancer sufferers.

As one patient who, after ten years of toxic therapies, has benefitted from newly targeted drug treatment for his rare cancer said ‘I feel like a normal human again’. However mealy mouthed or cynical you may be about public private partnerships in health – this is a powerful testimony in favour.


Saturday, 11 May 2013

NHS managers could learn a thing or two from Sir Alex Ferguson

As Manchester United fans across the globe prepare themselves for the ‘end of an era’ and mourn the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, it is worth reflecting on why he has been one of the greatest football managers of all time.

Regular followers of this blog will be familiar with my penchant for combining two of my great passions – football and health - so of course this landmark is just too significant to go without comment.

Non-believers may wonder why a football related subject should dominate headlines worldwide but Ferguson has his hands on the rudder of a 1 to 2 billion dollar enterprise, equally beloved by the stock market and football fans alike. Why has he been so influential and why have so many column inches been dedicated to this recent news? Because Ferguson is not only a great manager, he’s also a great leader and it’s quite rare to have both in one package.

Much has been reported about the lack of leadership and management in the NHS, both from a macro and micro perspective. Progress, service improvement and high quality care CAN be achieved in our hospitals and primary care facilities, if the teams have some decent leadership. And I’m not just talking about the boardroom, I’m talking about the doctor’s surgery, the bedside, and even the operating theatre – each department needs strong management. So NHS managers and leaders, please read the list below and take note.

Why was Sir Alex Ferguson so successful in managing a diverse group of individuals, each with their own agenda, but with, in theory, a common goal?

Discipline: I’m not suggesting that the hairdryer technique (where Ferguson blasts anyone who displeases him with a nose to nose tirade) but teams do need to play by the rules. Boundaries should be clear, rules well defined and bad behaviour should be noted and censured.

Reward good performance, address bad performance. The two golden words that could go a long way to fixing the NHS – performance management. Many have seen examples of incredible commitment and dedicated care alongside laziness, complacency and cruelty. For every individual failure there was a manager who either missed or ignored bad behaviour and practice. Performance management requires integrity and courage.

Instil pride in the brand and the team. Ferguson made it clear that when a player behaved badly on or off the pitch, he was damaging the Manchester United brand. The NHS has a fantastic brand and yet so many managers ignore this fact. I have seen brand loyalty (to almost a pathetic degree) in workers within the private sector which benefits customers, staff and the organisation in equal measure. Staff should wear their uniform with pride and be encouraged to honour their own teams.

Manage egos and personalities bigger than the brand. Cantona, Keane, Ronaldo – Ferguson had a knack for channelling genius and is probably responsible for saving the career of many an upstart. His controversial sale of David Beckham still smarts, but maybe he was probably right in recognising that the Beckham circus could have unbalanced the team dynamics. One of the biggest challenges facing NHS leaders is how to manage clinical teams. The clinical card is often produced to win a work stream argument. These days, I have found that the big egos aren’t just the consultants (historically the most difficult to manage, especially orthopods and heart surgeons) but therapists, GPs and nurses sometimes inappropriately use their clinical qualifications as a type of diplomatic immunity. Their clinical concerns must be heard and carefully balanced with the harsh reality of health economics.

Earn your stripes. Ferguson worked his way up and was a player himself. The best NHS managers either have a clinical qualification or at least worked within a clinical environment. Jeremy Hunt, the Health secretary, is suggesting that prospective nurses spend more time on the ward before embarking on their training but I think it would be more effective to insist that every manager spends some time either observing or assisting patient care so they really understand the stress and pressure that clinical teams face.

Lead by example and encourage a healthy work ethic. Even at the age of 71, Ferguson is first at the training ground for early morning sessions. Too many NHS managers stay in their ivory towers and should spend more time in committee than at the coalface.

Celebrate success! Ferguson’s ‘dad dance’ at every goal leaves something to be desired, but no-one could doubt his pleasure. There is so much good in the NHS and it should be celebrated.

For senior leaders only – manage the press. Ferguson was criticised for blacklisting several organisations and reporters during his career. But he is a canny Scot and he knew that he needed to control the message. I was at a launch of a new joint NHS/private venture on cancer research the other day. It is potentially a fabulous collaboration, and I shall be writing about it soon. But there was one reporter there, from a newspaper that famously overdramatises health stories and so often gets the facts wrong. She kept chipping away at the potential negative elements of the venture, and even her questions demonstrated that she didn’t quite get it – but these bad news stories dominate the UK press and undermine improvement efforts. Yes, it’s important that the public know about catastrophic events such as the unnecessary deaths at Mid Staffs and flaws in government reforms but the NHS PR machine needs to work harder in sharing the good news too.

I wish you every happiness and good health in your retirement and many many thanks for the hours of pleasure you have given millions Manchester United fans for over a quarter of a century.

Just one thing – could you consider postponing your retirement and replacing Sir David Nicholson as Chief Executive of NHS England? It’s about time the NHS had a premier league manager.