The NHS in England may be struggling to meet even relaxed cancer targets


18 November, 2016
James Shield, Senior Policy Analyst  |  @jshield

The NHS in England has now failed to meet a vital cancer target in all but one of the past 29 months — and on the latest evidence, it is struggling to meet even the relaxed targets set by NHS Improvement this July.

Recognising the problem in hitting the national target to treat 85% of patients within 62 days of an urgent GP referral, NHS Improvement put the previous system of fines on hold. Instead, most trusts now have an ‘improvement trajectory’ to meet, tied to a bit of extra money from a ‘sustainability and transformation fund’. Out with the stick, in with the carrot.

Uphill battle

It’s too early to say whether that approach will work in the medium term. But what we do know is that NHS Improvement appears to have a bigger challenge on its hands than it might have thought.

Here at Macmillan, we’ve been comparing actual performance against this target with the ‘improvement trajectories’ for the first quarter of this new system — July 2016 to September 2016 (the most recent stats available).

Waiting times chart - for twitter.png

The actual picture differs in two important ways from what NHS Improvement wanted to happen by this point:

  • Many more trusts failed to meet the national target than NHS Improvement expected. By this point, just over 20% of trusts were expected to be missing the national target, leading into a period of recovery over the winter. Instead, it was more like half in July, August and September.
  • We may be seeing a divergence among trusts, between those persistently missing the target by a wide margin, and those meeting it by a comfortable margin. Such a wide divergence has implications for the way improvement funds are allocated.
Waiting times table - for twitter.png

Phantom carrot

Previously, trusts were fined for missing these targets. But since July, each individual trust can be rewarded for staying on their improvement trajectory with a pay-out from the £1.8bn Sustainability & Transformation Fund. 5% of that fund (or about £90m) is linked to this cancer target.

The idea is that rather than taking money away from struggling trusts, they should be helped to get back on track — a carrot rather than a stick — and between July 2016 and March 2017, much of the country is supposed to have recovered.

But according to our analysis, more than half of trusts (56%) could be at risk of missing out on this money, at least for the most recent quarter.

The rules go like this: in Q2 of 2016/17 (July to September), trusts need to be within one percentage point of their trajectory to get the pay-out. This then ratchets up to half a percentage point in Q3, until the ‘tolerance’ disappears entirely in Q4.

However, fewer than half (44%) of trusts were near enough to their improvement trajectories from July to September to qualify. Our estimate of the amount of money that might be withheld from these trusts during Q2 puts the figure at around £12.7m, though it’s hard to know for sure.

Reality check

It is too early to say whether this picture will improve as we move further into the winter. Early signs appear to be that the NHS is struggling even to meet relaxed targets. And perhaps more worrying is that these targets are being missed by so wide a margin that many trusts could continue to miss out on the money they need to improve, trapping them in a cycle of missed targets.

Macmillan will continue to speak out on behalf of the thousands of people who continue to wait too long to start treatment. We’d encourage NHS Improvement to keep a close eye not only on the targets, but also on whether its system for supporting trusts to get back on track is working.

With thanks to Samuel Jones in Macmillan’s Evidence department for help with data analysis

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Notes:

1) Not all trusts have ‘performance trajectories’ in NHS Improvement’s new system. According to a document published by NHS Improvement in July 2016, trusts that had not accepted a financial ‘control total’ were excluded, and at the time of the document’s publication trajectories were subject to change due while they waited for regional sign-off. So for the purposes of this post, and its charts and tables, we only looked at the 133 trusts that had trajectories set for this period.

2) A couple of points on our estimate of the money that might be withheld from trusts: firstly, we only included trusts that had performance trajectories in place and saw at least 5 patients in any given month. Secondly, we estimated the withheld funds as follows: 5% of the Sustainability and Transformation Fund is linked to the performance trajectories for the 62-day cancer target. 5% of £1.8bn = £90m. Assuming this money is spread equally over the four quarters of the year, the amount linked to this target between July-September = £22.5m. We estimate that 56.4% of trusts missed their trajectories by >1% for the most recently reported quarter. 56.4% of £22.5m = £12.7m. If you think we’ve estimated this incorrectly, please do let us know.

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