Tories propose nudge, big business AI initiative and ‘personal responsibility’ in place of adequate health care funding

Health spending by govt

A breakdown of spending on health care under each government up to 2016. Under the Major government, we saw a post code lottery of health care provision and patients were left for hours on end in hospital corridors. It’s a grim consideration that the Major government spent rather more on health care than the Conservatives in office since 2010.

Earlier this year, the prime minister was warned that patients being treated within the National Health Service are dying prematurely in hospital corridors, in a letter from A&E chiefs outlining “very serious concerns” about patient safety. 

Sixty-eight senior doctors in charge of some of the busiest accident and emergency departments in England and Wales said safety compromises are becoming “intolerable”. 

The letter includes accounts from frontline A&E doctors, one of whom warned 120 patients a day were being treated in corridors because of a lack of space on wards.

The letter said: “The fact remains that the NHS is severely and chronically underfunded. We have insufficient hospital and community beds and staff of all disciplines especially at the front door to cope with our ageing population’s health needs.”

Other issues raised in the letter, first reported in the Health Service Journal, include patients waiting up to 12 hours for a bed after doctors had decided to admit them, with queues of 50 patients waiting in one emergency department. May said that the cancellation of 55,000 appointments  was “part of the plan” for the NHS last winter, but said of her government’s response “nothing is perfect”.

The National Health Service (NHS) faces significant financial problems in many different areas. It is succeeding in treating more patients than in the past, but this rise in public need for health care, and rising costs coupled with very tight budgets, are translating into widespread pressures on the capacity of staff and managers to keep up with past performance and the standards the service sets itself.” 

Lengthening queues for treatment are happening despite the NHS treating more patients. In England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the number of episodes of care provided in NHS hospitals has been rising. In England, for example, the number of episodes of care overseen by a hospital consultant has risen 11.4% between 2010/11 and 2015/16. It is just that the rise in the treatment provided is not keeping pace with the even faster rise in the number of people coming forward.

At the same time, EnglandScotland and Wales have all started in different ways to look at reducing the provision of treatments that may be deemed of ‘less benefit’ to patients. That means that some people who would have had treatment on the NHS before may not in future. 

This decade health services have seen some of the lowest spending increases in their history. In England, real annual increases are only around 1% a year.

Real terms spending has also been roughly flat per person since 2010 in WalesScotland and Northern Ireland.

This compares to an average increase of nearly 4% over the history of the NHS reflecting the fact that, as the OBR has found, an aging population, new technology and rising wealth all tend to increase health spending in a country.

Matt Hancock, the demedicalisation of illness and the neoliberal psychosocial model

Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, has called on patients to have greater responsibility for their own health in the launch of new a policy paper entitled Prevention is better than cure which outlines a vision for a “new 21st-century focus on prevention”.

He says he wants to “radically change the focus of health and social care onto prevention”. 

Last month I wrote an article that pre-empted Hancock’s policy paper, published yesterday. I wrote critically about a number of his proposals in Government plans to use your phone and online data to police your lifestyle and predict ‘threats’ to your health.

Hancock has called for an increase in ‘social prescribing’ – referring patients to classes and community groups – in a bid to “shift the balance” away from GPs ‘automatically prescribing drugs for many illnesses.’  socialprescribing

He said in September“The evidence increasingly shows that activities like social clubs, art, ballroom dancing and gardening can be more effective than medicines for some people and I want to see an increase in that sort of social prescribing.” 

In practice, social prescribing means that GPs, nurses and other healthcare practitioners work with patients to identify non-medical opportunities or interventions that will help, improving support and the wider social aspects of their lives. The services that patients can choose from include everything from debt counselling, support groups, allotments and walking clubs, to community cooking classes and one-to-one coaching.

Both evidence and commons sense suggests that social prescribing may be particularly appropriate and beneficial for isolated, marginalised groups. It is a needs-led community provision that supports and enhances psychosocial health and wellbeing. However, Hancock seems to think it may be used as a substitute for medicine. 

The psychosocial approach has already been used to cut the budget for disability welfare support, with some tragic consequences. Now, the same approach in the form of social prescriptions is being proposed to cut the NHS bill. The University of York has already produced research to show that there is little good quality evidence that social prescribing is cost-effective

The Conservative government has made a link between social prescriptions, cost-cutting and (as I deeply suspected) as a mechanism of extending behavioural modification (euphemistically called “nudgingby the government’s team of behavioural economists and decision-making “experts”).

Nesta, who now partly own the government’s Behavioural Insights Team (the Nudge Unit) are of course at the forefront of promoting social prescriptions among medical professionals, firmly linking what is very good idea with very anti-democratic Conservative notions of behaviour change, citizen responsibility and small-state ideology. So, it’s no longer just about helping people to access a wider range of community-based services and support, social prescribing has also places strong emphasis on “encouraging patients to think about how they can take better care of themselves.” 

Nesta may have a whopping ‘cognitive bias’ here. A ‘perverse incentive’. It’s called the ‘profit’ incentive.

The same (bio)psychosocial model has been used to disingenuously trivialise and euphemise serious physical illnesses, implying either a psychosomatic basis or reducing symptoms to nothing more than a presentation of malingering tactics. This ploy has been exploited by medical insurance companies (infamously by Unum Provident in the USA) and government welfare departments keen to limit or deny access to medical, social care and social security payments, and to manufacture ideologically determined outcomes that are not at all in the best interests of patients, invalidating diagnoses, people’s experience and accounts, and the existence of serious medical conditions

Unum was involved in advising the government on making the devastating cuts to disabled people’s support in the UK’s controversial Welfare Reform Bill.

Hancock said in his speech at the International Association of National Public Health Institutes: “Prevention is also about ensuring people take greater responsibility for managing their own health.

“It’s about people choosing to look after themselves better, staying active and stopping smoking. Making better choices by limiting alcohol, sugar, salt and fat.”

Hancock claims it is not about “patronising” patients, “It’s about helping them make better choices, giving them all the support we can, because we know taking the tough decisions is never easy.”

“In the UK, we are spending £97bn of public money on treating disease and only £8bn preventing it across the UK”.

“You don’t have to be an economist to see those numbers don’t stack up.”

public spending

No, the numbers don’t stack up. Approximately 14 billion is spent by the Department of Health on things like public health initiatives (which aim to improve people’s health so they don’t need to use the NHS as often), education, training, and infrastructure (such as IT and building new hospitals). 

The Conservatives said in their 2015 election manifesto they would provide £8 billion in government, and expect another other £22 billion in savings from the NHS. The Nuffield Trust said this still left unanswered questions on funding:

“£8bn is the bare minimum to maintain existing standards of care for a growing and ageing population …

“improving productivity on this scale [£22 billion] would be unprecedented”

The Conservative government followed through on the commitment and then started claiming it was giving £10 billion, providing the NHS what it asked for, and more.

In their 2017 election manifesto, the Conservatives said they would increase NHS spending by at least £8 billion in real terms over the next five years, and increase funding per head of the population for the duration of the parliament.

Last year the think tanks said there would be a £4 billion gap in health spending in 2018/19 alone, but the £1.9 billion provided by the government at the end of last year meant that “around half of the minimum gap we calculated has been filled.”

They said even based on the government’s current spending plans there is likely to be a spending gap of over £20 billion by 2022/23. 

Approximately 44 % of NHS trusts—which provide secondary care to patients who’ve been referred there by a GP—were in the red in 2017/18. The figure was 65% just among acute hospital trusts—which make up the bulk of NHS trusts across England.

Collectively they finished 2017/18 with a deficit of around £960 million.

In this context, social prescriptions are used to maintain the status quo, and are likely to be part of a broader process of responsibility ascription – based on the traditional Conservative maxim of self-help, which is used to prop up fiscal discipline and public funding cuts, the extensive privatisation of public services, defense of private property and privilege, and of course, the free market. The irony of the New Right, neoliberal, paternalistic libertarianism is that the associated policies are not remotely libertarian. They are strongly authoritarian. It’s a government that doesn’t respond to public needs, but rather, it’s one that pre-determines public interests to fit within an ideological framework.

Theresa May has pledged millions of pounds to use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to “improve early diagnosis of cancer and chronic disease.” In a speech delivered earlier this year, May also called for the industry and charities to “join the NHS in creating algorithms that can predict a patient’s care requirements based on their medical records and lifestyle information.” 

The government believes that early intervention would provide “less invasive, more affordable and more successful care than late intervention,” which they claim “often fails.”  

While the government has assumed that the unmatched size of the NHS’s collection of data makes it ideal for implementing AI, many are concerned about data privacy.

Importantly, May’s proposal would (once again) allow commercial firms to access NHS data for profit.

In April 2018, a £1bn AI sector deal between UK Government and industry was announced, including £300million towards AI research. AI is lauded as having the potential to help address important health challenges, such as meeting the care needs of an ageing population. 

Major technology companies – including Google, Microsoft, and IBM – are investing in the development of AI for healthcare and research. The number of AI start-up companies has also been steadily increasing. There are several UK based companies, some of which have been set up in collaboration with UK universities and hospitals.

Partnerships have already been formed between NHS providers and AI developers such as IBM, DeepMind, Babylon Health and Ultromics. Such partnerships have attracted controversy, and wider concerns about AI have been the focus of several inquiries and initiatives within industry, and medical and policy communities. 

Last year, Sir John Bell, a professor of medicine at Oxford university, led government-commissioned review. He said that NHS patient records are uniquely suited for driving the development of powerful algorithms that could “transform healthcare” and seed an “entirely new industry” in profitable AI-based diagnostics. 

Bell describes the recent controversy surrounding the Royal Free hospital in London granting Google DeepMind access to 1.6m patient records as the “canary in the coalmine”.

“I heard that story and thought ‘Hang on a minute, who’s going to profit from that?’” he said. 

Bell gave the hypothetical example of using an anonymised data for chest radiographs to develop an algorithm that eliminated the need for chest x-rays from the ‘analytical pathway’.

“That’s worth a fortune,” he said. “All the value is in the data and the data is owned by the UK taxpayer. There has to be really serious thought about protecting those interests as we go forward.”

However, Bell highlighted a “very urgent” need to review how private companies are given access to NHS data and the ownership of algorithms developed using these records.

Hancock, the recently appointed health secretary, is now planning a “radical” and highly invasive system of “predictive prevention”, in which algorithms will use detailed data on citizens to send targeted “healthy living messages” to those flagged as having “propensities to health problems”, such as taking up smoking or becoming obese. 

People’s medical records will be combined with social and smartphone data to predict who will pick up bad habits and stop them getting ill, under radical government proposals. Of course this betrays a fundamnetal assumption of the government: that illness arises because of  bad “lifestyle choices.” 

In the policy paper released yesterday, Hancock says “Prevention means stopping problems from arising in the first place; focusing on keeping people healthy, not just treating them when they become ill. And if they do, it means supporting them to manage their health earlier and more effectively. 

This means giving people the knowledge, skills and confidence to take full control of their lives and their health and social care, and making healthy choices as easy as possible.” 

And: “Last year, over 20 million people used the NHS website. Over the next ten years, digital services will become even more widespread, and the first point of contact for many. The management of health will move out of clinical settings, and into the hands of people. Devices and applications will provide guidance and support around the clock.”

Hancock also said that Public Health England will look at “harnessing digital technology” as a form of “predictive prevention”, potentially leading to targeted health advice for people based on their their location and lifestyle. 

His focus is on “improving health, reducing demand for public services and supporting economic growth.

And: “Predictive prevention will transform public health by harnessing digital technology and personal data – appropriately safeguarded – to prevent people becoming patients. The availability of public data, combined with the existing understanding of wider determinants of health, means we can use digital tools to better identify risks and then help the behaviours of people most in need – before they become patients. 

“Historically, public health has dealt with populations as a whole – a one-size-fits-all approach. The power of predictive prevention comes from enabling people to look at their health in the context of their own life, their own circumstances, and their own behaviour. “

“This means moving beyond a simply clinical view of a body system or disease. It means envisioning a world where everyone can understand their own risks, both in their genetic make-up and from their personal behaviour. We will be able to empower people to make positive changes – and not always in ways we have traditionally thought about.”

Whenever the Conservatives use words like ’empower’, ‘help’ or ‘support’, I worry, because the ideological context of neoliberalism changes the political meaning of these Orwellian Conservative signpost words. Similarly, when Conservatives use the word ‘sustainability’, it is invariably with a view to making catastrophic funding cuts to social safety net provision and wider public services. 

Hancock says more than once: “The ambition is to prevent people becoming patients.”

Inevitably, he came to : “We want to ensure better integration between health and employment support services to help people with health conditions to enter and stay in work. This means ensuring people receive work-related advice and support within the NHS as part of making work a health outcome; on the basis that good work is good for health.” The basis is unverified.

The government conducted a survey in 2011 that showed if people believed that work is good for them, they are less likely to take time off. There is no evidence that demonstrates work is good for health. There is evidence that suggests people who are well enough to work generally do. It is not possible to ‘make’ work ‘a health outcome’. People are either healthy enough to work or they are not. The fact that healthier people work on the whole does not make work ‘good’ for people’s health. Poverty is historically linked with poor health. In work poverty has risen over the last decade. Having a job is no guarantee of escaping poverty or ill health. 

Job coaches are already asking GPs to refer patients to them, and have even suggested that GPs should make sick notes conditional on patients making an appointment with a work coach. 

Hancock’s proposals hint at a plan to extend conditionality in health care. 

Helen Donovan, Professional Lead for Public Health at the Royal College of Nursing, said: “We welcome the fact that the Health Secretary is making prevention a priority, and clearly recognises that a focus on public health will keep people healthier for longer and save the NHS money and resources in the long run.

“But Matt Hancock must realise his plans will start at a disadvantage as local authorities struggle with planned cuts to public health budgets of almost four per cent per year until 2021. While it’s clear he sees that prevention isn’t an optional extra, we need to see properly funded, accountable services delivered by a fully staffed nursing workforce backed by adequate resources. Disadvantaged areas emerge worse off without these vital services with life expectancy and the poorest bear the brunt of underinvestment in public health.”

Jonathan Ashworth MP, Labour’s Shadow Health and Social Care Secretary, said: “The Tories have imposed swingeing cuts to public health services, slashing vital prevention support such as smoking cessation services, sexual health services, substance misuse services and obesity help.

“In local communities, years of cuts and failed privatisation have resulted in health visitor and school nurse numbers falling, whilst children are losing out on the key early years health interventions they need.

“Many of the aims announced today are laudable but the reality is currently a further £1bn worth of cuts to health services including public health are set to be imposed by this Government next year.”

He added that unless the cuts were reversed, the green paper (planned for next year) would ”be dismissed as a litany of hollow promises”.

Simon Capewell, a professor of public health and policy at Liverpool University, said the minister was right to emphasise the need for effective prevention of epidemics such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and dementia.

But he added: “We must recognise the huge power of our lived environment, and avoid naively just focusing on ‘personal responsibility’ and ‘individual choices’. People do not ‘choose’ obesity or diabetes or cancer. They have just been overwhelmed by a toxic environment.”

The big drop in the last decade in the number of  UK citizens who smoke showed that firm, consistent government action was the best way to boost public health, Capewell said.

He added: “Mr Hancock can celebrate previous health successes with tobacco control. That success was built not on victim blaming, but on strong tax and regulation policies to reduce the ‘three As’ of tobacco affordability, availability and acceptability.”

Ministers need to take similarly tough action now against “the production of the commodities which harm people’s ill health, including junk food, cheap booze and fixed-odds betting terminals,” he said.

Hancock has of course denied that the government’s austerity programme had an impact on public health. In an interview for the BBC’s Today programme Hancock said: “The biggest impact on your health from the economy is whether or not you have got a job, and there are record numbers of jobs in this country.”

This of course is utter rubbish. If Hancock’s magical thinking was true, health in the UK would have dramatically improved over the last few years in line with ‘record employment levels’. But it hasn’t. The Conservatives are a party that prefers dogma over evidence, ideology over public services and the pseudopsychology of nudge over policies that meet public needs. 

Several health organisations have highlighted that local councils in England have had to cut their public health budgets in recent years, and will do so again next year, because Hancock’s department of health and social care has reduced their grants to divert more money to frontline NHS services. Many local councils have delivered preventative health programmes, but are now finding it increasingly difficult to deliver the statutory services. 

Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, heavily criticised Hancock’s remarks. “From telling people to stand up in meetings to now lecturing people about their habits, while cutting £1bn from health services, isn’t a serious plan for improving the health of the nation,” he said.

public spending

Over the weekend Theresa May said the Conservatives “are now the natural party of the NHS” and said the Government was putting the public health system, created 70 years ago, on a path to “prosper for another 70 years and more”. That is most certainly an empirically unverified statement. 

It’s utter rubbish.

Matt Hancock Health secretary at his office


Demedicalising illness and deprofessionalising healthcare: Rogue company Unum’s profiteering hand in the government’s work, health and disability green paper

GPs told to consider making fit notes conditional on patients having appointment with work coach

Government plans to use your phone and online data to police your lifestyle and predict ‘threats’ to your health

Cash for Care: nudging doctors to ration healthcare provision

Rationing and resource gatekeeping in the NHS is the consequence of privatisation


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25 thoughts on “Tories propose nudge, big business AI initiative and ‘personal responsibility’ in place of adequate health care funding

  1. Pushing this out on fb I have to post individually on each group page so not as helpful to you as when I have twitter I’ve mailed you to thank you for your support to get me back in – I did think (Having looked at their rules) that I should have limited access because it’s ‘Unusual behaviour’ Now I can’t even ask for a code they say I’ve asked too many times because they didn’t send it Speak soon x

    Liked by 2 people

      1. You couldn’t make it up got back in no code nothing just in then earlier today locked out again ‘Unusual behaviour’ got code immediately so back in I think #MissingInAction helped not sure but I think Skwawk tweeted it on @twitter lol! Finally catching up with all the stuff I couldn’t tweet and have messaged you over there any chance you could let me have a thumbs up or something to let me know you’ve seen it please? Hoping to get to post office tomorrow I think you can mod this out of the arena cos it’s personal 🙂 Lizx


    1. It’s criminal to see that not once do they talk of input from medical staff, all they have are civil servants and business men giving advice on how to save money! The NHS is not broken (yet) what it needs is more money and less interference from big business and politicians, but that will not happen under this government because of there desire to do away with the NHS altogether and replace it with US insurance companies and the people who can’t afford health care (those who need it most) will be left to mercy hospitals!

      Liked by 4 people

  2. Excellent as always – although I wonder if there’s been any study correlating cuts/assessments in disability benefits to increased pressure on the NHS?
    My big bugbear lately (I am a welfare rights advisor who helps people with a lot of ESA and PIP appeals) has been about the burden that the assessments have placed on doctors having to write support letters, increased need for hospitalisation / visits to doctors because of increased poverty and stress caused by the assessments, *and* last but maybe not least how the shortages of NHS-trained nurses, physios, OT, and doctors has been made all the worse by these being siphoned into doing the assessments for ESA & PIP which pay the HCPs double what the NHS pays. I’m sure a full cost accounting across all government deptartments – not just the DWP, but courts and the NHS would help expose the assessments for the sham ‘savings’ they are. So far I’ve not seen anyone attemping this, do you know of one?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m disabled and on ESA and PIP (for the moment, anyway). I’m about 95% sure that I have a common form of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (Hypermobility, basically). I never bothered to get a referral for a diagnosis because I didn’t think there was any treatment. My last ESA adventure (several years ago) has made me reconsider, though.

      I have multiple medical reports saying that the hypermobility of my spine contributed/caused my slipped disc, and likely caused the associated chronic pain. My ESA assessor (a general nurse, highly unlikely to know much about chronic pain) not only ignored the reports (1 from my consultant neurosurgeon and 1 from my osteopath, who specialises in hypermobility problems), he decided that I couldn’t possibly have chronic pain from the injury/surgery I described. Leaving aside the fact that chronic pain sometimes begins for no (apparent) reason, EDS very neatly explains what happened to me. But no. No official EDS diagnosis, no hypermobility, no proof that I have a back problem/chronic pain or that I’m genuinely disabled. Huh.

      My ESA is due for renewal soon, and after the Hellish year I just spent fighting to get my PIP back, I can’t bear the thought of having to do it again for ESA. It might kill me this time (that’s not hyperbole).

      Would another diagnosis help? Would it help to convince the assessor to believe in the pain in my back, hip, and knees? I don’t want to waste NHS time and resources, but tbh, anything I can do to make it less likely that I’ll have to go through another year like this one…

      I’ve now learned that there is specialist physio available for EDS, so I’m definitely going to ask for a referral, but I probably would have anyway. The terror of losing the money you need to survive is a pretty big motivator.

      I wonder how many other disabled/chronically ill people are considering/doing the same thing?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yet the criteria that ESA assessors claim they use excludes diagnosis as an indicator of how an illness or condition affects your day to day activities. They claim to focus on ‘functional capacity’. That is how they get away with turning people with clearly diagnosed illness such as multiple sclerosis, cancer and kidney failure down for support. You can’t win because either way this is about finding reasons to decline applications.

        I had problems because a new rheumatologist decided to challenge my long-standing diagnosis of lupus – based wholly on several lots of test results, though the symptoms match very well, too. As medication masks the markers, it was claimed my blood tests were currently fairly ‘normal’. I’m just wondering how many abnormal test results it takes for a concrete diagnosis to last longer than a handful of appointments. She sent me for scans and tests – most of which I had already had – which took some 9 months to complete. Meanwhile she withdrew my medication.

        I got ill, caught flu. My immune system is so poor that when I have a flare, I am very susceptible to serious infection – I caught a cold at work one time and ended up with pneumonia. This time I ended up with life-threatening pneumonia and severe sepsis. I almost died. I demanded another consultant. My medication is reinstated, things are better. But with this kind of thing going on in the NHS, how on earth can we present consistent evidence anyway?

        The symptoms matter, regardless of a diagnosis. Sometimes doctors don’t know what is wrong until a later date. That doesn’t make you any less ill.

        I didn’t have a clear diagnosis when I appealed my ESA. But I sent in lots of reports about my day to day struggles, and the tests I was having. The tribunal panel decided the outcome on that, and I won.

        I also have EDS, though that diagnosis was late in the day for me. Like you, I have had slipped discs -I was 22 when the first happened and it never got better. I have a permanently dislocated vertebrae between my shoulder blades, many other problems. It took a 10 minute examination of my joints and skin, after years of serious problems, for a doctor to perform the Beighton Score and make a diagnosis. After many years of doctors telling me cracking, clicking joints that feel like they have ‘come out of place’ is ‘normal’. It isn’t. Nor is having to put your own jaw on the left side back in place yourself since the age of 14.

        I hope you don’t have to go through having to fight for your lifeline support again, Heather xx


      2. One thing we’ve found very helpful at assessments (besides getting someone go with you to witness, to note particularly the time actually taken and tests/investigations done since these are what is most commonly lied about) is to go through the point system for ESA (or PIP) and write a letter to hand in to the assessor delineating which descriptors you’re eligible for and why, emphasising the chronic nature of your conditions. Plus another letter from a friend/carer who know you and helps you describing how your conditions affect you and what they do for you / what help you need on a bad day. If you haven’t already a copy, you can find the ESA descriptors here:
        Use their language as much as possible, and if you’re in too much pain to sit through the whole assessment, say that.
        As Kitty said, the DWP don’t give a stuff about diagnosis, but they do have to take into account how you’re affected (make sure you describe what happens on a bad day, and how often you have bad days). A diagnosis might help at the tribunal stage but hopefully these letters will help to avoid that. Another helpful thing is to have a line from your GP to say that whatever medication you take does not reliably control your pain, to avoid another trick the DWP commonly pull.
        Best wishes and good luck,

        Liked by 2 people

  3. @MentalHealthResist @Skwawkbox trending with the peoples march sharing this fb and twitter it’s so good I’ve shared it to within an inch of it’s life – You’re starting to get the recognition you so richly deserve mate – Now if people wake up to the Integrity Initiative they’ll see the true nature of the NeoLibs I think they’re more likely to be NeoCons

    Liked by 1 person

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