Any qualified provider

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The idea that ‘any qualified provider’ can deliver NHS services may be contentious, but it has roots in existing policy. Thoreya Swage examines the opportunities for industry in the changing health provider landscape.

Successive governments have tried in recent years to shake up the healthcare system in the UK, with England probably being subject to the greatest number of changes. A key element of these shake-ups has been various attempts to expand the healthcare market in order to include the private or independent sector.

This widening of the doorway started in earnest with the deployment of the waiting list initiative in the 1990s, using the spare capacity of independent hospitals to reduce the queues for elective procedures that had built up in the NHS.

The baton was then taken up by the independent sector treatment programme under the last administration: the range of work done by private providers expanded to diagnostic procedures and screening programmes, as well as the construction of bespoke independent hospitals to take on hip, knee and cataract operations from the NHS.

It was at this stage that the concept of patients choosing which healthcare institution to go to for treatment or diagnostic procedures started to take off, with some of those options being in the independent sector. The idea of an ‘any willing provider’ began to take shape, with NHS care being delivered by any appropriate healthcare body as long as it had reached identified quality and safety standards.

However, before the recent change of government this initiative began to cool under external political pressure and at one time even seemed likely to fade away.

What AQP means

Despite opposition, the coalition Government has renewed the ‘any willing provider’ policy, calling it this time ‘any qualified provider’. In July of this year the Department of Health in England issued ‘operational guidance’ to the NHS providing further details to PCT clusters and the emerging Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) – the renamed, modified GP consortia.

This policy has come under the guise of improving the quality of care by widening patient choice for specific services.

The intention is to permit the patient to choose from a list of qualified providers when they require a referral for a specific community or mental health service. To meet the ‘any qualified provider’ (AQP) requirement, a healthcare organisation needs to fulfil the quality, price and contractual obligations for NHS services. This process, as we have seen, is already in place for elective care.

The guidance states that the implementation of AQP will be conducted in phases from April next year. However, some work needs to be done before that. PCT clusters and their associated CCGs need to have decided which community or mental health services they wish to identify for the implementation of AQP locally by October, so that their patients can begin to have access to that care between April and September next year. Three or more services from the following list, drawn up by the DH in conjunction with patient groups, should be identified:

  • musculo-skeletal services (neck and back pain)
  • audiology services in the community (adults)
  • continence care (adults and children)
  • diagnostic services (e.g. imaging and heart and lung investigations)
  • wheelchair services (children)
  • podiatry services
  • wound healing and management of leg ulcers
  • primary care psychological therapies (adults).

The guidance also says that PCT clusters and CCGs can choose alternative services for AQP in different priority areas if these are supported by local patients – for example, as identified through the shadow health and wellbeing boards (the new joint health and social care joint commissioning boards) – and effective gains in quality and access can be made by doing so.

Getting involved

How can independent provider organisations participate in this process? The principles of the AQP approach are as follows:

  • Organisations can qualify and register to provide NHS services as long as they meet NHS assurance requirements.
  • Referral pathways and protocols set by CCGs must be accepted by the providers wishing to be on the AQP list.
  • Patients are offered a choice of services from the list of qualified providers.
  • There will be a fixed price based on a national or local tariff, to ensure that the provider is chosen by quality.

A national qualification process for all AQP providers is currently being developed by the DH in order to minimise bureaucracy and reduce transaction costs. The proposed principles for qualification are that providers:

  • must be registered with the Care Quality Commission to demonstrate that they meet the essential standards for quality and safety (or equivalent assurance requirements if providing services not covered by CQC registration)
  • are licensed by Monitor (from 2013) so that they are authorised to deliver NHS care
  • can meet the terms and conditions of the NHS Standard Contract, including having regard for the NHS Constitution, appropriate guidance and legal obligations
  • deliver care at NHS prices
  • can meet the service specifications developed by commissioners and comply with referral protocols
  • agree with the commissioners on any supporting schedules to the NHS Standard Contract, e.g. on activity levels.

More details of the qualification process will be published this autumn.

The providers that have successfully achieved the national qualification process will be listed in a directory available to GPs later this year.

By November 2011, lead PCT clusters will have produced detailed implementation packs for each service on the AQP list that will include service specifications, contract currencies, tariffs and information models.

It is anticipated that AQP for the services identified above will begin to be implemented from April 2012, with all CCGs having this in place for their patients by September 2012.

What happens next?

AQP will continue to expand: for 2013/14 a further list of services has been identified by the DH for discussion with commissioners, patient groups and providers. The list is not finalised, but will probably include:

  • maternity care, e.g. antenatal education and support for breastfeeding
  • speech and language therapy
  • supporting patients to self-manage long-term conditions
  • chemotherapy in the community setting and at home
  • primary care psychological therapies for children and adolescents
  • wheelchair services (adults).

Opportunities for medtech

The most obvious opportunity for medtech in relation to AQP is in the sphere of direct access diagnostic services, where many investigations such as non-obstetric ultrasound, echocardiography, cardiac physiology, MRI, X-ray, endoscopy and phlebotomy can be provided in the community setting, as indeed some already are (e.g. via Inhealth). These direct referrals can enable GPs to obtain rapid investigations and help to manage their patients in primary care, without having to refer to a hospital consultant.

Another key area is adult hearing services, including audiology and hearing aid fitting. Telehealth and telecare also have a part to play in supporting some of these services by monitoring people with long-term conditions at home. The services identified for the initial phase of AQP have traditionally had poor information systems. Better data collection on activity and health outcomes will be vital for the success of the providers delivering services under this initiative.

The key challenge for medtech companies is to get onto the recognised list of AQP that the DH is drawing up, or to work with partners who will be applying to go onto the list. Rather than regarding independent providers simply as customers, medtech suppliers can work with them to achieve AQP success.

Potential providers need to get up to speed on a number of areas, such as ensuring that they are registered with the CQC, have a good understanding of the standard NHS contract, offer services in keeping with the CCGs’ requirements and can manage within NHS financial envelopes.

The aim should be to identify the lead commissioner(s) within the local PCT cluster and associated CCGs and find out which community services they are planning to include on their local AQP. Alternatively, contacting the local shadow health and wellbeing board (if it is sufficiently developed) may indicate other priority areas for AQP. This is an opportunity for marketing medtech services that can be shown to improve patient care and are aligned with the local health economy’s priorities.

Medtech providers should also be clear about whether they can meet (or help their partner organisations meet) the qualification requirements for AQP. They should look closely at the details of these when they are published by the DH later this year.

Companies should also start doing their homework now on pricing and the care outcomes that can be achieved through their services, bearing in mind that the NHS commissioners will be looking at how the five high-level domains of the NHS Outcomes Framework will be achieved.

Another key milestone to look out for is the implementation packs due in November on service specifications, contract currencies, tariffs and information models. These will require close examination by potential providers seeking to ensure that they are fully prepared for AQP.

Although this initiative seems small in scale it looks set to grow in the future, and further opportunities will present themselves for 2013 and beyond as AQP continues to expand. For more information, visit the Department of Health website.

 Dr Thoreya Swage was formerly an NHS clinician and a senior manager in various NHS organisations covering acute and primary care. She has expertise in commissioning health services and is currently working for a number of NHS organisations, including DH agencies, to develop a more commercial approach to the commissioning of healthcare.