If NHS Scotland has been genetically-modified with QI

It is most welcome to hear from Philippa Whitford about positive outcomes of NHS Scotland’s collaborative approach to quality improvement and the learning that this might provide for the rest of the UK. I share Philippa Whitford’s concerns about the potential consequences of competitive systems such as occurs more in NHS England with providers, commissioners and contracts and the inevitable fragmentation that this brings. The integrated approach taken in Scotland along with the engagement of patients and frontline practitioners is indeed something to be most positive about.

However, NHS Scotland’s approach to Quality Improvement is based on what is known as “improvement science”. This is a relatively new approach to science introduced from the USA and based on methodologies from the engineering and airline industries. The Health Foundation, in its ‘Evidence Scan’ found a “real paucity of evidence about the field of improvement science” . The Health Foundation found papers on the conceptual nature of Improvement Science but concluded that: “none of these could be said to be seminal pieces of research acting as building blocks for the field as a whole”.

As far back as 2007 Brent et al identified that “ethical issues arise in QI because attempts to improve quality may inadvertently cause harm, waste scarce resources, or affect some patients unfairly.”

Scotland has two key National Improvement initiatives for older people in acute hospital care. One is for Delirium and the other is for Frailty.

The QI initiative on Delirium was reliant upon “screening tools” that were effectively made mandatory for all those aged 65 years and over admitted to hospital. Healthcare Improvement Scotland measured the “compliance” with the use of these “screening tools” across Scotland. On the wards I was finding that these tools were not infrequently being interpreted as diagnostic and that older people were sometimes considered as lacking in “capacity” on this basis. I was also concerned that this approach could lead to greater use of antipsychotic medication.

The QI initiative on Frailty is currently being implemented across NHS Scotland. This is despite the fact that there is no internationally accepted clinical definition for Frailty. More “screening tools” have been developed by Healthcare Improvement Scotland and “Frailty Hubs” are now being set up in most NHS Boards. It may be worth noting recent high-level disagreement amongst British Geriatricians about the validity of the “Frailty Industry” as one senior Geriatrician described it.

The experience of these national initiatives perhaps highlights the limitations of approaches which work best in mechanical settings. The same success cannot be guaranteed when applied to more complex presentations such as delirium and frailty.

It has recently been stated that “ethical approval is less burdensome” for QI. However I suggest that we must be wary of taking shortcuts that may result in potential harm as well as potential good. This is why ethics and philosophy have an established role in science.

Another risk is that if science is pre-determined as “improvement”, this may limit the acceptance of critical thinking.

Philippa Whitford concludes that in NHS Scotland “Quality improvement has made its way into the DNA of frontline staff”. I share the view that Quality Improvement has much to offer. However, if NHS Scotland has been genetically-modified with QI let us hope that the wider considerations necessary for science are included in the base-code.

Dr Peter J Gordon
Psychiatrist for Older Adults
NHS Scotland


Quality Improvement and ethics

Response by Dr Sian F Gordon and Dr Peter J Gordon, 4 June 2017

This Acute Perspective by Dr David Oliver has our interest, in part because we all embarked on our career in medicine around the same time.We very much share Dr Oliver’s advocacy for “the actions and engagement of frontline practitioners and the real world context in which they work” and agree that these “are critical to success.”

We would like to contribute in the spirit of critical thinking  regarding the place of ethics in Quality Improvement (QI).

Dr Oliver states that QI can deliver “tangible outcomes” and that it has “a methodological and theoretical rigour and peer community of its own”.

As far back as 2007 Brent et al identified that “ethical issues arise in QI because attempts to improve quality may inadvertently cause harm, waste scarce resources, or affect some patients unfairly.”

Dr Oliver states that “ethical approval is less burdensome” for QI. We are of the view that ethics must be one of the necessary starting principles for any QI work and would argue that any attempt, however well intentioned, to demote ethics from this role might result in outcomes that may not be described as “improvement”.



Reductionism – truly, madly, deeply

On Friday the 25th of November 2016 I gave a talk for the Scottish Philosophy and Psychiatry Special Interest Group.

My subject was “Improvement Science”.

The following is based on the slides and the four short films that I presented.

My talk was entitled:
001-improvement-science The meeting was held at the Golden Lion Hotel, Stirling:golden-lion-hotel-stirling-25-nov-2016-1golden-lion-hotel-stirling-25-nov-2016-2I started the day off:
002-improvement-scienceI gave these declarations:
I explained to the audience that like Dr Rev I M Jolly I can be overly pessimistic:

005-improvement-scienceThe dictionary definition of ‘Improvement’:
006-improvement-scienceThe dictionary definition of ‘Science’:
007-improvement-scienceMy concern is any pre-determinism to science:
008-improvement-scienceThe Health Foundation have considered Improvement Science: this is from 2011:
009-improvement-scienceMany different terms are used including “QI” for “Quality Improvement”:
010-improvement-scienceThis is where improvement science began, in Boston, Massachusetts:
011-improvement-scienceThe Founder of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) was Don Berwick:
013-improvement-scienceThe first description of this movement in Britain goes back to 1992 by Dr Godlee:
014-improvement-scienceFifteen years later, Dr Godlee, Editor of the BMJ, said this:
015-improvement-scienceOnly last month the BMJ briefly interviewed Don Berwick:
016-improvement-scienceIHI describes improvement science as being based on a “simple, effective tool”:
017-improvement-scienceThis tool was developed from the work of an American engineer, W. A. Deming:
018-improvement-scienceThe “Model for Improvement” Tool [TM] is described by IHI as a “simple, yet powerful tool”:
019-improvement-scienceThe current President and CEO of IHI is Derek Feeley:
024-improvement-scienceUp until 2013, Derek Feeley was Chief Executive [Director General] for NHS Scotland:
021-improvement-scienceIn April 2013 Derek Feeley resigned from NHS Scotland:
022-improvement-science22nd February 2015 it was reported: “The astonishing and largely hidden influence of an American private healthcare giant at the heart of Scotland’s NHS”:
023-improvement-scienceDr Brian Robson, Executive Clinical Director for Healthcare Improvement Scotland [HIS] is an “IHI Fellow”:
dr-brian-robsonProfessor Jason Leitch, National Clinical Director for the Scottish Government is an “IHI Fellow”:
026-improvement-scienceMight we be facing the biggest change to healthcare in Scotland since the NHS began?nhs-scotland-1947 Improvement science is moving quickly and widely across Scotland:
027-improvement-scienceThis “Masterclass 1” for Board members cost  £146,837:
028-improvement-scienceAn NHS Board member commented after the Masterclass:
029-improvement-scienceHealthcare Improvement Scotland is one organisation with a very wide remit over NHS Scotland and it works closely with the Scottish Government:
031-improvement-scienceNine cohorts of Safety Fellows and National Improvers have so far been trained following IHI methodology:
032-improvement-scienceI was reminded of the current enthusiasm for improvement science when the Convener of a recent Scottish Parliament Committee meeting said of targets (another approach enthusiastically taken by NHS Scotland):033-improvement-scienceWhat is the place of ethics in Improvement Science?
034-improvement-scienceIn 2007 the Hastings Centre, USA, looked into this in some depth:
035-improvement-scienceThe Hastings Centre argue that Improvement science cannot ignore ethics:
036-improvement-scienceIn 2011 the Health Foundation, UK, produced this “Evidence Scan”:improvement-science-2011a2The Health Foundation commented that “improvement science is just emerging”:
The Evidence Scan found a “real paucity of evidence about the field of improvement science”:
038-improvement-scienceI would also suggest that there is a real paucity of philosophy about the field of improvement science:
039-improvement-scienceThe Health Foundation did find papers on the conceptual nature of Improvement Science but concluded that:
040-improvement-scienceMary Midgley is a philosopher now aged 95 years who is widely respected for her ethical considerations:
041-improvement-scienceChapter 7 of her book “Heart and Mind: The Varieties of Moral Experience” begins:
042-improvement-scienceMary Midgley is concerned about the overuse of reductionist tests in medicine stating that:
This film is about the potential consequences of inappropriate reductionism:

Leon Eisenberg has written many papers about this subject. He argues that reductionism should not be “abandoned” but that we must keep sight of where such an approach is scientifically useful and also where it is inappropriate:
045-improvement-scienceIn the Hastings Report, Margaret O’Kane asks:
046-improvement-scienceIn my view the answer to this question is YES. I am hopeful that the National Improvers recruited to NHS Scotland would agree:
047-improvement-scienceAs an NHS doctor I have seen unintentional harm brought about by National improvement work in Scotland. This related to a “Screening Tool” that was introduced across Scotland as part of this work. I found that the unintended consequences of the use of the following tool included implications for patients’ autonomy and the risk of over treatment:
048-improvement-scienceBoth the Hasting Group and the Health Foundation are of the view that improvement science cannot separate itself from the ethical requirements of research:
049-improvement-scienceThis article published in February 2016 argues that individual “rights transcend all aspects of Improvement science”
050-improvement-scienceThe following is a verbatim representation of a conversation held by National Improvers working in NHS Scotland:
051-improvement-scienceIn November 2016 Professor Joshi, also a psychiatrist outlined his concerns about reductionism in a published letter to the BMJ:
In this short film the mechanical language of healthcare improvers is considered:

Professor John Bruce was a Moral Philosopher in Edinburgh University in the 18th century. He built this temple, the “Temple of Decision”, in the grounds of his home by Falkland Palace so that he could consider his thesis:
054-improvement-scienceProfessor John Bruce did not succeed in his endeavour. His Temple however stood for many years:
055-improvement-scienceBut it eventually collapsed and his endeavour to “reduce the science of morals to the same certainty that attends other sciences” collapsed with it.
057-improvement-scienceAny search of Healthcare Improvement Scotland for “ethics” finds this result:
This film is about more up-to-date buildings – the enthusiasm for which was based on improvement science: The Red Road flats in Glasgow:



The following is an edited clip of the evidence given to the Scottish Parliament by Healthcare Improvement Scotland (HIS) on the 31st January 2017:

The full session can be watched here

The Official Report can be accessed here