The “Simpson” Report: Cautious steps towards a national health system?

This article appeared on stuff.co.nz on the 17th of June 2020.

The “Simpson” Report: Cautious steps towards a national health system?

The last time we had a review as comprehensive as the “Simpson” Report (Health and Disability System Review) was in the early 1990s with the so-called “Green and White Paper” which was an ambitious, centrally-driven reform process which left its mark in a more business-like approach to managing health care and the establishment of PHARMAC. Little else survived.

With the “Simpson” Report we have a document that draws substantially on submissions from the sector, that has been a couple of the years in the making, and that sets the stage either for a cautious realignment of our current system or a much more far-reaching set of reforms that, with leadership and sector buy-in, could have long-lasting consequences.

What are the major “probable” innovations? 

  • A new crown entity, Health New Zealand, is mooted as a central co-ordinating, initiating and planning body that fills the gap of an operational function that the Ministry of Health, as a policy ministry, was not established to perform.
  • A Maori Health Authority that has an advisory, planning and advocacy function associated with the Ministry of Health, but without a separate health system budget. 
  • Fewer DHBs, without elected members. 
  • Networks – of local primary and community health organisations (so-called Tier 1), and of hospitals and specialist services (so-called Tier 2).  
  • An emphasis on equity, yes of course, but also a commitment to monitoring and enforcing efficiency and effectiveness in the performance of hospital and related services. At present we simply do not have the indicators and benchmarks in place to perform this well.

What are some of the “possible” innovations?

  • An encouragement in workforce development and training to move towards a competency-based approach to regulation rather than a profession-based focus. As the wording of the report suggests, this will be hard to achieve, but I am aware in my role as a DHB member that we are constantly frustrated by demarcation disputes and an inability to work flexibly in many domains.
  • PHOs are not encouraged. In many instances it is hard to see what value PHOs add. In Auckland several new PHOs were formed, the function and utility of which it is hard to fathom. PHOs add another layer of complexity that at present does not help us organize primary and community care effectively, particularly where there are competing corporate interests.
  • The report tip-toes around the issue of the privacy obstacles to the use of New Zealand’s unique National Health Index for bona fide public interest purposes (screening and enrollment among others). If a full-blooded panel cannot insist on this flexibility, who else can?
  • A data-driven, digitally-enabled ecosystem. We have wasted a good twenty years and we still have competing systems not only across DHBs but within them too. One of the problems in the response to COVID-19 was the inability of data systems to talk to each other and collate information.

What remain some of the problem areas?

  • Primary care, general practice. In the recent COVID experience in Auckland alone thirty general practices just shut up shop. In Auckland we also have corporate practices driving barebones primary care for low-income populations. In such circumstances ethical, professional primary care practice can simply not survive. The report talks much of primary and community care, but at the heart of it is a big hole in funding. In the United Kingdom primary care is seen in many ways as the driver of the system, with high professional prestige and associated state funding, but not in New Zealand.
  • Regional entities. These could be another layer, or a useful grouping of networks. Unclear.
  • Health outcomes. The DHBs are to tackle health outcomes. But health outcomes are largely determined by factors outside the health sector. A delivery system can probably make a difference to about 30% of life expectancy and maybe 50% of heath expectancy. We need to be realistic about what the delivery system can do, and hold it to account accordingly.
  • Population health as a driver. The report emphasises population health as the driver of the system. But from my experience the system is not population focused, and never can be, because the hospitals are so dominant. The bulk of DHB staff work in hospitals and most of the DHB’s budget funds hospital work. This is in turn is driven by everyday activity arising from the needs of the population.
  • Population health as a social policy. The major determinants of population health lie outside the health system. And the major initiatives required to advance the health of the public have to be politically driven – such as social housing, tackling the industries that foster our obesity epidemic, clean water, and so on. New structures will not solve this, only political will.
  • Hospital focus. The DHBs are dominated by their hospital focus. As an elected member 90% of my time is spent on matters to do with the hospital sector. This cannot be wished away. There needs to be serious attention to home-based care, reducing admissions, ambulatory alternatives, specialist outreach to prevent admissions and so on. 
  • The funding recommendations in the report are not convincing, for me anyway. Ringfencing for non-hospital services? This has never worked, for the simple reasons that saving lives in an acute setting will always trump the more prosaic work in the community. No mention is made of how to make primary care financially viable for the long term. I still think the Woodhouse report that established ACC should be dusted off and revisited. It argued for an ACC-style social insurance system not just for injury, but for illness as well. 

The “Simpson” Report is best seen as a starting point for what could be a process of intelligent, long-term reform that could gain bipartisan and stakeholder support. These are cautious steps towards the national health system that a population of just five million surely deserves.

Peter Davis, Emeritus Professor of Population Health and Social Science, University of Auckland, and elected member, Auckland District Health Board

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Peter Davis NZ

Peter Davis recently retired from Auckland University where he established and headed the COMPASS research group in the Faculty of Arts for ten years and before that taught and researched in health policy and health services in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences (and for a time at the Christchurch Medical School) for 30 years. Peter remains an Honorary Professor in Statistics and an Emeritus Professor in Population Health and Social Science at the University of Auckland. He was recently elected to the Auckland District Health Board where his main areas of interest are: the reporting and using of information to improve the performance of health systems, the effective management of public sector organisations to achieve policy goals, and the development of evidence-informed public policy. Peter is also Chair of the Board of Trustees at The Helen Clark Foundation, a New Zealand-focussed public policy think tank.

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