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