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Modernizing UK health services: 'Short-sharp-shock' reform, the NHS subsistence economy, and the spectre of health care famine

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Bruce Charlton, Dr Peter Andras


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Modernization is the trend for societies to grow functionally more complex, efficient and productive. Modernization usually occurs by increased specialization of function (e.g. division of labour, such as the proliferation of specialists in medicine), combined with increased organization in order to co-ordinate the numerous specialized functions (e.g. the increased size of hospitals and specialist teams, including the management of these large groups). There have been many attempts to modernize the National Health Service (NHS) over recent decades, but it seems that none have significantly enhanced either the efficiency or output of the health care system. The reason may be that reforms have been applied as a 'drip-drip' of central regulation, with the consequence that health care has become increasingly dominated by the political system. In contrast, a 'short-sharp-shock' of radical and rapid modernization seems to be a more successful strategy for reforming social systems - in-between waves of structural change the system is left to re-orientate towards its client group. An example was the Flexner-initiated reform of US medical education which resulted in the closure of nearly half the medical colleges, an immediate enhancement in quality and efficiency of the system and future growth based on best institutional practices. However, short-sharp-shock reforms would probably initiate an NHS 'health care famine' with acute shortages and a health care crisis, because the NHS constitutes a 'subsistence economy' without any significant surplus of health services. The UK health care system must grow to generate a surplus before it can adequately be modernized. Efficient and rapid growth in health services could most easily be generated by stimulating provision outside the NHS, using mainly staff trained abroad and needs-subsidized 'item-of-service'-type payment schemes. Once there is a surplus of critically vital health services (e.g. acute and emergency provision), then radical modernization should rapidly improve the health service by a cull of low-quality and inefficient health care providers. © 2005 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Charlton BG, Andras P

Publication type: Review

Publication status: Published

Journal: Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice

Year: 2005

Volume: 11

Issue: 2

Pages: 111-119

ISSN (print): 1356-1294

ISSN (electronic): 1365-2753


DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2753.2005.00515.x

PubMed id: 15813709