NHS England has published an updated list of medical conditions for which you can no longer receive prescriptions for, as part of a wider cost-cutting exercise due to insufficient funding from central government.
Last year I wrote an article about the stealthy creep of rationing of treatments in the NHS, and how gatekeeping has become a watchword within our public services over the past seven years. It’s being driven by the government’s deep affection for neoliberal dogma, the drive for never-ending ‘efficiency savings’ and the Conservatives’ lean, mean austerity machine. Perish the thought that the public may actually need to use the public services that they have funded through their contributions to the Treasury, in good faith.
One important point I didn’t raise in the article was about how the marketisation of the NHS has given rise to ‘perverse incentives’, which violate the very principles on which the national health service was founded. Neoliberal policies have shifted priorities to developing profitable ‘care markets’ making ‘efficiency’ savings and containing costs, rather than delivering universal health care.
In 2017, doctors raised concerns that vital medical treatments and operations are being increasingly rationed. The treatments affected include hip and knee replacements and cataract surgery to help restore sight as well as drugs for conditions such as severe forms of autoimmune related arthritis.
Such health care is normally given routinely under the NHS, but the British Medical Journal has found evidence it is being cut back, the data showed doctors are having to resort to special appeals to get their patients treated, and that the increasing restrictions were due to a lack of funding.
The journal gathered evidence from clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) which showed the special requests are increasingly being used for vital non-emergency services, many of which prevent conditions from deteriorating and preserve mobility and vision, for example.
Responses from 169 of the 209 clinical commissioning groups, which control local budgets, showed:
- In 2013-14 there were just 49 requests made for hip and knee surgery, but by last year the figure had reached 899
- Over the same period, the number of cataract appeals trebled to more than 1,000.
- Overall the number of requests being made through the special cases route rose by 47% to 73,900
- Just over half of all requests were approved.
Doctors now use a standardised scoring system to assess how much discomfort and lack of mobility a patient has for hip and knee replacements, for example. By increasing the bar at which a referral for an operation is made, the NHS is restricting the numbers of people getting treatment. This will invariably have an impact on the quality of people’s lives, and their degree of independence.
These restrictions also apply to essential mental health care.
Doctors said the trend was a clear indicator that care was being rationed. For every case where an ‘exceptional argument’ has been made for treatment, there will be plenty more where patients will have gone without care and their doctor did not appealed.
Restricting access to mental health care, arthritis and cataract treatment is a false economy. Patients with these conditions are at risk of social isolation, depression, and the latter two conditions may lead to fall-related injuries and other complications. This cost-cutting approach means the NHS is reduced to little more than a crisis management service, rather than one that treats citizens to ensure they don’t reach a point of crisis in the first place, which is the best possible outcome.
The administration of health service support impacts on people’s ability to work
The impacts of a profoundly punitive and inadequate social security system on the health of disabled people, and how the cuts have become a barrier to work has been well documented, and the enduring poverty and hardship disabled people are forced to live under. There has been rather less discussion about the impact of cuts to health care, treatment rationing and how this affects peoples’ working lives, however. With the NHS in crisis and waiting times for non-urgent treatments escalating, it’s difficult to see how timely interventions to help people back to work can possibly be delivered.
One patient who has been caught up in the health care squeeze is Helen Cole, from west London. She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis 11 years ago. This is an autoimmune condition that leads to very severe and disabling inflammatory arthritis and progressive joint damage. It doesn’t only affect the joints, however, as the illness can also affect major organs, such as the heart and lungs. It can cause osteoporosis and affect blood vessels, nerves, tendons and may even affect the hearing. Furthermore, during flare ups of inflammation, rheumatoid arthritis generally makes people feel very unwell.
Most rheumatologists agree that early treatment is essential to try and prevent the disease progressing rapidly. Helen relies on an immune suppressing drug called rituximab, but it is not being routinely funded by her local health managers, so her doctor has to make a special request for it every six months. This has led to delays in her getting the drug and gaps in her treatment. Last time, she had to wait 10 weeks to get her next treatment.
“I had a lot of pain in my joints and really big problems with fatigue. It can be really challenging day to day.”
She said she finds the whole process “stressful” and believes it “makes no sense”.
“The whole point of treating a disease like rheumatoid arthritis is to try to keep it under control at all times,” she added.
Having timely and effective treatment which manages symptoms as effectively as possible can make a lot of difference to a person’s quality of life and independence, including being able to remain in work.
Autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis leave a progressive wake of damage that cannot be undone, which is why early treatment is essential. Patients are not always given treatments that are the most effective. The new generation of biologics – such as rituximab – are very effective, but cost much more than older ‘disease modifying’ medications such as methotrexate, which is a chemotherapy that suppresses the immune system. Between 15 – 25% of people with rheumatoid arthritis respond positively to methotrexate.
The new and expensive biologics, on the other hand, tend to be prescribed to those people whose disease is deemed ‘severe’, and who have not responded to methotrexate. But classification of ‘severe’ disease is an imprecise art and definitions are now invariably tied in with available funding. It means that people are waiting until their disease becomes aggressive, and damage to their joints has progressed before even being considered for a treatment that could have helped prevent the damage in the first place. In other words, NHS cuts are leading to disability, when it may have been prevented with effective treatments.
Stephen Cannon, of the Royal College of Surgeons, said local health managers were “unfairly and unnecessarily prolonging the time patients will spend in pain, possibly immobile and unable to carry out daily tasks or to work”.
The latest list of restrictions on prescriptions includes those for:
- Acute Sore Throat
- Cold Sores
- Coughs and colds and nasal congestion
- Cradle Cap (Seborrhoeic dermatitis – infants)
- Infant Colic
- Mild Cystitis
- Contact Dermatitis
- Diarrhoea (Adults)
- Dry Eyes/Sore tired Eyes
- Excessive sweating (Hyperhidrosis)
- Head lice
- Indigestion and Heartburn
- Infrequent constipation
- Infrequent Migraine
- Insect bites and stings
- Mild Acne
- Mild Dry Skin/Sunburn
- Mild to Moderate Hay fever/Allergic Rhinitis
- Minor burns and scalds
- Minor conditions associated with pain, discomfort and/fever. (e.g. aches and sprains, headache, period pain, back pain)
- Mouth ulcers
- Nappy Rash
- Oral Thrush
- Prevention of dental caries
- Ringworm/Athletes foot
- Teething/Mild toothache
- Travel Sickness
- Warts and Verrucae
- Probiotics, vitamins and minerals are no longer available on prescription.
Although there are over-the-counter medications that people can buy for most of these conditions, those living on low incomes may not be able to afford the treatments. Effective pharmacy treatment for cystitis, for example, is around £25. If left untreated, cystitis can lead to kidney infection, which will require urgent treatment. Conjunctivitis is an eye infection that can be caused by bacteria, and this type most frequently needs an antibiotic ointment to prevent it from becoming more serious, because the eyes are very vulnerable to infection. Left untreated it can damage the eye and may cause blindness.
There are exceptions to the restrictions, however. Circumstances where the product licence doesn’t allow the type of medication to be sold over the counter to certain groups of patients, for example. This may vary by medicine, but could include babies, children and/or women who are pregnant or breast-feeding. Community pharmacists will be aware of what these restrictions are and can advise patients accordingly.
Patients with a minor condition suitable for self-care that has not responded sufficiently to treatment with an OTC (over the counter) product may also be prescribed treatment.
Patients where the clinician considers that the presenting symptom is due to a condition that would not be considered a minor ailment may also be prescribed medication for some of the above conditions. For example, chronic dry eyes many be one symptom of an underlying autoimmune condition, without effective treatment, it may cause progressive damage to the cornea as well as recurring bouts of conjunctivitis. Recurring mouth ulcers may be a symptom of a chronic condition, such as an autoimmune disease – for example lupus.
In circumstances where the prescriber believes that in their clinical judgement exceptional circumstances exist that warrant deviation from the recommendation to self-care, they may prescribe medication for the above conditions.
Patients where the clinician considers that their ability to self-manage is compromised as a consequence of social, medical or mental health vulnerability to the extent that their health and/or wellbeing could be adversely affected if left to self-care may also warrant prescribed treatment for these conditions.
NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens, said: “To do the best for our patients and for taxpayers it’s vital the NHS uses its funding well.”
But that flies in the face of the ‘preventative approach’ that health secretary Matt Hancock has proposed recently. For example, contact dermatitis may become infected if left untreated, especially if the person affected can’t isolate the cause. If one member of a family has head lice (and children pick them up very easily from nursery or school) and this isn’t treated promptly, the whole family is likely to catch them. Effective head lice treatment is costly and needs to be repeated.
Threadworms are also highly contagious, and children pick them up very easily, as they are transmitted via microscopic eggs that can stick to clothing, towels, bedding, carpets and on unwashed hands. One study showed that up to 40% of children at primary school age will have threadworms. If access to prescribed treatment is restricted, children with embarrassing and very unpleasant, uncomfortable conditions like threadworms and head lice in poorer families may be left with the conditions longer, and may well pass on the parasites to others.
Deflection is when patients who are unable to get a GP appointment or adequate treatment seek treatment elsewhere – for example, an accident and emergency (A&E) department. The national GP patient survey asked patients who were unable to get a convenient appointment last time they called their GP what they did instead. It found that people end up going to an A&E department or a walk-in centre. Again, cost-cutting leads to further costs further down the line.
Restricting treatments for those with mental health conditions and chronic illness means that these citizens are less likely to be able to work. This is at odds with the government’s pledge to ‘half the employment disability gap’.
GP’s are being ‘incentivised’ to reduce referrals to specialists
It was announced in April last year that General Practitioners across England will be able to “better manage” hospital referrals with a “digital traffic light system” developed by the Downing Street policy nudge wonks. This nudge is designed to target the ‘referral behaviours’ of GPs.
GPs are being offered cash payments as an ‘incentive’ to not refer patients to hospitals – including cancer patients – according to an investigation by Pulse, a website for GPs.
Furthermore, a leaked letter sent by NHS to England to Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) and seen by Pulse magazine last year, asks that all family doctors in England to seek approval from a medical panel for all non-urgent hospital referrals.
A “clinical peer review of all referrals from general practice by September 2017”, will be required, the letter said.
To ‘incentivise’ the scheme, the letter said that there will be “significant additional funding” for commissioners that establish peer-led policing schemes. It added that it could reduce hospital referral rates by up to by 30 per cent. NHS England said that they want to introduce the “peer review scheme” whereby GPs check the referrals of one another to ensure they are ‘appropriate’. However, experts warn this increasingly Kafkaesque layer of bureaucracy could lead to more problems and possible conflict with patients’ safety and standard of care.
“Cash incentives based on how many referrals GPs make have no place in the NHS, and frankly, it is insulting to suggest otherwise,” said Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs.
“Of course, it’s important to take measures to ensure that GP referrals are appropriate and high-quality, but payments to reduce referrals would fly in the face of this, and erode the trust our patients have in us to do what is best for them and their health.”
The NHS has been squeezed for increasingly drastic ‘efficiency savings’ in the past eight years. It’s absurd, however, that a huge amount of money is being spent on restricting access to healthcare, rather than on simply adequately funding healthcare provision.
Potential impact on social security assessments for people with chronic illness
Something else to consider is the potential impact this may have on people needing to claim social security disability support. The private company assessors hired by the government to determine eligibility for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) tend to regard people who haven’t been referred to a specialist as being less ill than those who have.
They also tend to take prescribed treatments into account when assessing the severity of illness, the needs of claimants and their eligibility for an award. Being let down by the NHS potentially has a knock-on effect which may leave some people in a situation where they can’t get either the health care or the financial support they need to live independently, increasing their vulnerability.
There is no specific list of services to which individuals using the NHS are guaranteed access. Instead individuals have a number of legal rights that are set out in the NHS Constitution. These include the right to: receive most NHS services free of charge; receive certain treatments within a maximum waiting time; be treated in a safe and clean environment; have access to drugs and treatments recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), if a doctor says it is appropriate.
Like our social security system, the NHS should be there for all of us in our time of need, based on principles of inclusion, support and security for all, assuring us of our safety and dignity. However, chronic under funding, rationing and the increasing marketisation and ‘efficiency savings’ demanded by the government are incompatible with supporting citizens – especially those with multiple disadvantages – to live full, healthy and independent lives.
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