It has been described as the holy grail of healthcare: the patient at the centre and the care team working seamlessly together, no matter where the team members are located, what tribe they belong to or who their paymaster is.
Integration has been talked about for many years. The fact that it’s high on the current political agenda means that there’s still a lot to wish for. Although we have high quality healthcare services, our patients tell us that their journey through the system is everything but smooth. Most health professionals are painfully aware of the shortcomings in the the system.
What is integration?
So what do we mean when we talk about integration? Co-location of health professionals? Team meetings between doctors, nurses and allied health professionals? Hospital departments talking to each other? Communication between GPs and specialists? Working across sectors? Packaging preventative and curative services? Patient participation? One electronic health record? A shared management and funding system?
Integrating health services means different things to different people. For that reason the WHO proposes the following definition:
“Integrated service delivery is the organisation and management of health services so that people get the care they need, when they need it, in ways that are user-friendly, achieve the desired results and provide value for money.
Integration is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Sharing resources may provide cost savings but, says the WHO, integration is not a cure for inadequate resources. Obviously, integrating services doesn’t automatically result in better quality. It’s also worthwhile noting that co-locating services does not equal integration.
There is a difference between integration from a consumer point of view, which often implies seamless access to services, and professional integration, which is achieved through mixing skills and better collaboration. These two types of integration don’t necessarily go hand in hand.
So it is useful to ask: what problem are we trying to solve? Are we trying to improve the patient journey through the health system? Do we want to support health professionals to deliver better care? Or is the main driver government concerns about costs?
How to achieve it?
One thing is certain: we must fight fragmentation. This is challenging as we are seeing a wave of commercially driven, disruptive services appearing in the healthcare sector. These solutions may be attractive to consumers because they are convenient, but they usually don’t contribute to a better or more integrated health system.
Unfortunately the evidence around integration is limited, but the authors of this MJA article are suggesting a way forward. They have looked at international health reform initiatives improving integration between community and acute care delivery, and they found that the following 10 governance elements are essential to support integration:
- Joint planning. Governance arrangements included formal agreements such as memoranda of understanding
- Integrated information communication technologies
- Effective change management, requiring a shared vision
- Shared clinical priorities, including the use of multidisciplinary clinician networks, a team-based approach and pathways across the continuum to optimise care
- Aligning incentives to support the clinical integration strategy, includes pooling multiple funding streams and creating equitable incentive structures
- Providing care across organisations for a geographical population, required a form of enrolment, maximised patient accessibility and minimised duplication
- Use of data as a measurement tool across the continuum for quality improvement and redesign. This requires agreement to share relevant data
- Professional development supporting joint working, allowed alignment of differing cultures and agreement on clinical guidelines
- An identified need for consumer/patient engagement, achieved by encouraging community participation at multiple governance levels
- The need for adequate resources to support innovation to allow adaptation of evidence into care delivery.
Major paradigm shift
The first thing we need is a shared vision. A major paradigm shift towards more integration requires motivated and engaged stakeholders and champions, a shared sense of purpose and a culture of trust. This should be established before embarking on a new journey. We must avoid making the same mistakes that have caused so much havoc in projects like the PCEHR.
It will be a challenge to get health professionals to focus more on coordination instead of daily care delivery. An essential step here is to increase capacity. The last thing we need is an overloaded primary care sector such as in the UK. The RACGP is suggesting an overhaul of primary care funding to faciliate integration and coordination. Similar changes will be required to free up hospital doctors to e.g. discuss patient cases with primary care providers.
The big question is: who will take the lead? It is likely that a lot of work will happen at a local level and primary health networks could play a crucial role here. A shared agenda, clear goals and genuine stakeholder involvement are keys to success.