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From electricity suppliers to doctors, why do many reject the modern imperative to 'shop around'?

A new report by the Competition and Markets Authority highlights how poorer people are failed by energy markets. Jonathan Tomlinson finds the same for health - and for understandable reasons. 

Jonathan Tomlinson
26 February 2015
old lady.jpg

Image: Lee Jeffries / Flickr. All rights reserved. 

Last week, the Competition and Market Authority reported that those least able to take advantage of competition and choice in the energy market were,

less educated, less well-off, more likely to describe themselves as struggling financially, less likely to own their own home, less likely to have internet access, more likely to be disabled or a single parent.

They were also more likely to stick with providers with whom they had an established relationship.

Tese vulnerable people also stand to benefit least from competition and choice in healthcare, because of the associations between poverty and ill health.

Dr Smith was well past his due retirement, but was unable to find anyone to take over his surgery in a pretty rough part of town where he had been a single partner for nearly 40 years. His wife had been the practice manager until she had a stroke and then had to be cared for in a nursing home. He had been struggling to make money from the surgery for the last few years due to the cost of locum GPs and a locum manager.

The building was desperately in need of repair. Dr Smith was tired and struggled to keep up with the paperwork, coming into work every weekend and staying late into the evenings. He hadn't had a holiday in the last 3 years. He had survived his annual appraisals and revalidation by the General Medical Council. and he was allowed to continue working even after the Care Quality Commission made a long list of recommendations after inspecting the practice. Like many GPs it was his considered opinion that the only things guaranteed by regulation and inspection were time taken away from patient care and low professional morale. Dr Smith was loved by many of his patients who known him for years and trusted him unquestioningly, though his treatment regimes were often out of date and he was tended to be pretty blunt.

One day, at work, Dr Smith had a heart-attack and died at his desk. When Dr Jones and partners took over his list, they found that the patients were more likely to be,

less educated, less well-off, more likely to describe themselves as struggling financially, less likely to own their own home, less likely to have internet access, more likely to be disabled or a single parent.

They were also more likely to be over 65 and have cognitive-impairment, learning difficulties or long-term mental illnesses. Other patients had changed GP long before Dr Smith retired. They didn't need Friends and Family tests, NHS choices feedback, 'I want great care' or any other on-line rating system to recognise that the shabby waiting room and the ever-changing locum GPs weren't 'great'.

But many of those that remained valued the long relationship that they had with Dr Smith and everything they had been through together. A fair few had been born at home and delivered by Dr Smith - twenty or thirty years ago it was common for GPs to deliver babies. He had cared for their parents and grandparents, their children and grandchildren. Personal care from a doctor they considered a family friend was of more significance than anything that could be measured and listed on a GP comparison site. According to the CMA report, energy consumers who valued long-term relationships based on trust and familiarity were also not served well by competition and choice.

The NHS is founded on the basis of equality and fraternity but competition and choice are new values for the NHS. 'Liberating the NHS' was the name of the 2010 government white paper that preceded the NHS Act, and the focus on liberty has increasingly eclipsed equality and fraternity. Competition and choice are enforced by a new NHS organisation called Monitor and strongly advocated by government advisers including Tim Kelsey, National Director for patients and information and Andrew Taylor, founding director of the NHS Competition and Cooperation Panel and now adviser to NHS providers on competition issues. 

A situation where there is less transparency and no choice between providers cannot reasonably be defended, but questions need to be asked. What is the point of competition and choice in healthcare? Why must it be enforced? Who will benefit and who will lose out? What if patients don't want to behave like consumers? What are the alternatives?

The point of choice is that it demonstrates respect for autonomy. Proponents argue that since quality between providers of care varies, patients have a right to know who is best so that they choose accordingly. They argue that if patients choose the best or cheapest providers then all providers will have to increase their quality or reduce their costs to stay in business. Even when choosing energy supply the cost is not the only consideration, though you wouldn't know it from the CMA report. Other issues include 'green energy' and customer service and the confidence that comes with staying with an established provider.

When choosing healthcare, measuring quality is extremely difficult. Other factors like access, location, continuity or 'customer service' may be more important or even conflicting. For example, a service with better continuity of care - assuming such a thing is measured, may be hard to get access. Quality, whatever that means, may not be the same as 'what matters', because what matters to a young mother joining a GP surgery may be very different for a working man with diabetes or a frail, elderly couple.

'Choice' when you are having a miscarriage, when you've broken your neck, when you have cancer or when you've got depression, hepatitis and diabetes all together or if you are housebound with severe agoraphobia and heart-failure may have very little to do with choice of healthcare provider and a lot to do with the quality of the relationships you have with health professionals. Leaving Dr Smith who has looked after you for 20 years because Dr Jones has got a better CQC report doesn't make so much sense when you think about the importance of therapeutic relationships.

Healthcare is, for the most part, dependent on the quality of relationships between patients and professionals. It is interactional and cooperative. It is full of uncertainty about the nature of the problems and what should be done. More than ever it is about the care and support of patients with multiple long-term conditions. At other times care is for emergencies in which speed, not choice is key. 

Less often health care is transactional -for example when a patient has a clearly defined problem and is in need of a standard procedure for which outcomes are easier to measure and relationships relatively unimportant. Here competition and choice may have value. For most health care however, the relationships between patients and professionals are both complex and caring and depend on mutual trust and respect and time to get to know one another.

Both the CMA and those directing health policy are of the opinion that the problems of choice and competition can be overcome by offering more choice and making it easier to choose at the same time as increasing competition. Not only is this based on a misunderstanding of the nature of care, but it is very unlikely to serve the interests of those who are most vulnerable and whose health is most precarious.

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