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Liminal Spaces blog - Scotland’s Turn Towards ‘Realistic Medicine’: What’s in a Name?

Thu 30 March 2017

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By Edward Dove

Unfortunately, I never had the honour, privilege and pleasure of meeting Professor Ken Mason, having arrived at the University of Edinburgh shortly after he stepped away from the Law School. Yet, through affectionate and humorous stories shared with me from Graeme Laurie and colleagues, I quite quickly came to understand the tremendous and memorable impact Ken had on people, on institutions and on disciplines. Upon Ken’s passing, Graeme inspired me to commemorate this kind, sage, admired Professor by writing a short piece on a topic about which he was vocal (and from what I hear, there were many such topics!). One topic was the ‘individualistic’ turn in medical law, which apparently rather vexed him. This is a topic which interests me – and sometimes vexes me as well – particularly in the context of autonomy and privacy, seen perhaps most starkly in human rights claims grounded in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. On this, Graeme, I and other colleagues in the Liminal Spaces Project explored in an article analysing an intriguing European Court of Human Rights case on the nature and scope of the right for relatives to consent to or to oppose the removal of a deceased person’s tissues.

Continuing the topical thread on the ‘individualistic’ turn, of which Ken was a major sceptic, here, I want to explore Scotland’s inchoate turn towards something called ‘realistic medicine’. Given the brief space acceptable for a blog piece, I merely want to pose some critical questions for thought. After a brief overview of what ‘realistic medicine’ entails, I query whether it represents yet a further example of an individualistic approach in medicine, and also query what might be the impact on collective responsibility and provision of care by the state. Though I sincerely lament having never met Ken, one can only hope that this short piece serves in some way as a small but genuinely heartfelt token of gratitude and commemoration for this giant in medicine, law and ethics.

The dawn of ‘realistic medicine’

In January 2016, Scotland’s new Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Catherine Calderwood, introduced the concept of ‘realistic medicine’ in her first annual report. The impetus behind this concept is somewhat vague, but it seems to stem from perceived ‘times of challenge’ in the NHS, namely the ‘increase in demand for services in an age of austerity’ that ‘requires us to achieve more through better use of resources’. To this end, the CMO cited a 2015 Audit Scotland report that called for a ‘fundamental change’ in the way NHSScotland delivers services to cope with increasing demands for services and to increase the pace of change. Audit Scotland’s report was blunt in its assessment:

Significant pressures on the NHS are affecting its ability to make progress with long-term plans to change how services are delivered. Tightening budgets combined with rising costs, higher demand for services, increasingly demanding targets and standards, and growing staff vacancies mean the NHS will not be able to continue to provide services in the way it currently does. Together, these pressures signal that fundamental changes and new ways to deliver healthcare in Scotland are required now.

If the impetus is financial austerity and increased demand in services, then what exactly constitutes ‘realistic medicine’? – and is it the right remedy for the identified challenge? In her 2016 report, the CMO identifies six aims behind ‘realistic medicine’:

  1. build a personalised approach to care;
  2. pivot to shared decision-making;
  3. reduce unnecessary variation in practice and outcomes;
  4. reduce harm and waste;
  5. manage risk better; and
  6. encourage health professions to become improvers and innovators.

The aims are not explicitly underpinned by any delineation of principles (though reference is made to ‘principles of realistic medicine’ several times) or reference to statutes, so making sense of what realism in healthcare really means presents lawyers and ethicists with their own interpretive challenge. As the CMO’s 2017 annual report elaborates somewhat helpfully: ‘Realistic Medicine puts the person receiving health and care at the centre of decision-making and creates a personalised approach to their care. It aims to reduce harm, waste and unwarranted variation, all while managing risks and innovating to improve. These concepts will be essential to a well-functioning and sustainable NHS for the future.’ While seemingly focussing on the individual patient in the complex array of resource decisions to be taken, the statement also engenders several unanswered questions regarding values, vision and priorities.

Some strengths…

There are parts of the reports worth applauding – parts that I suspect Ken would also applaud. The CMO herself touts the ‘positive’ support for her 2016 report, stating that the Twitter hashtag #realisticmedicine reached ‘almost 10 million Twitter feeds a year after publication’. Foremost praiseworthy is the rejection of paternalistic communication patterns and instead the endorsement of the shift towards a shared decision-making approach between health professionals and patients. This instantiates the core message behind the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Montgomery v Lanarkshire Health Board. Specifically, the CMO should be applauded for encouraging the NHS to develop a better understanding of people’s needs and the factors influencing how decisions are made and consent provided. As the 2017 report observes: ‘Central to this is the principle that the relational factors underpinning conversations about care need to support a partnership based on openness, trust and communication.’ However, whether this ‘principle’ forms a part of ‘realistic medicine’ itself is unclear, as is precisely what the principle comprises.
Another aspect of ‘realistic medicine’ worth cheering is the recognition that there can be overtreatment of patients that causes waste in the health service system and harm for patients (something NHS England also recognises and is addressing). The reports note that this is disconnected from funding concerns – even if there was money in the NHS, overtreatment and waste are serious cause for concern. Laudably, the reports highlight efforts to realise this goal of reducing overtreatment and waste, including the proposed development of a single national formulary and a ‘Scottish Atlas of Variation’ to identify unwarranted variation in care.

…and some faults

However, there is also some room for concern. Reading the 2016 and 2017 reports together, two fundamental questions arise: first, what is meant by ‘realistic’, and second, realistic for whom? Notably, unlike the 2016 report, the 2017 report defines realistic as: ‘1. Having or showing a sensible and practical idea of what can be achieved or expected. 2. Representing things in a way that is accurate and true to life.’ This adjectival addition tacked on to medicine itself begs a question: is this about tailoring our expectations of what current and future healthcare can provide for citizens, or is this about tailoring healthcare to our expectations of what a sensible system of care should look like? If the former, might it mean that we should expect reductions in treatment and care given the dwindling resources available, and that we should take great individual responsibility for our well-being? How is the ‘representation’ of reality to be made, and by whom? If the latter, on what shared principles and values will realistic medicine be based – and what structural changes must be made to realise the vision? Moreover, if we are to turn towards ‘realistic medicine’, just what kind of medicine has been practised to date?

Less clear still is for whom medicine should be realistic. Presumably, the CMO would respond: ‘realistic for everyone’ – patients, health professionals, regulators, and so on. Yet, it is far from clear that the goals set forth in these reports are realistic, much less ‘sensible and practical’, for each stakeholder. Will health professionals have the time and resources to engage in shared decision-making with patients, particularly if this involves saying No to patients seeking particular treatments? If ‘realistic medicine’ is about focussing on the ‘true value to the patient’, who will assess what this true value consists of, and what are the consequential effects on the needs and expectations of the patient, not to mention the taxpaying citizen? Will politicians be realistic in planning for the long-term stability of universal health and social care for an aging population that is incurring increased comorbidities that require social care just as much as healthcare? Indeed, it is worth noting that Scotland lacks a tradition of a whole-system approach to these social support structures, and there are on-going concerns about how this new health and social care integration will be delivered and managed. The specific concern here is that the ‘individual’ risks being characterised differently by two quite different systems, each concerned with its own priorities, limited budgets, and desire not to be overloaded.

What lies ahead?

It is in this conceptual and political haze that two practical worries emerge. First, there is apprehension that ‘realistic medicine’ serves as the latest trend in healthcare policy (akin to Wales’s ‘Prudent Healthcare’ movement) to advance the responsibilisation agenda of the individual patient – framed as consumer choice or a ‘personalised approach’ – but which comes at the expense of collective responsibility and solidarity. Here, I do wonder whether Ken would raise his eyebrows in scepticism. Does ‘realistic medicine’ represent a systemic improvement in care and greater respect for patients? Or, might it signal a further reduction of care to rational choice decisions premised on autonomous actors ‘taking responsibility’ for their own actions in an era of ostensibly increased consumer choice, but genuinely reduced public resources? To that end, might the new tone in medicine be: ‘I’m sorry – that’s just not realistic’?

Second and relatedly, there is worry that ‘realistic medicine’ masks or disregards the underlying structural impediments to realising a healthy healthcare system – ongoing cuts to the NHS, long-term vacancies in health professions, competition between services, added pressure on doctors – that unless addressed with structural solutions, simply will lead to inevitable disappointment and further impairment of the NHS.

Scotland is clearly charting a new path for the NHS. Let us watch and wait – but not passively – to see where this path may lead us. How may ‘realistic medicine’ be realised across Scotland in the coming years? One certainly hopes that it brings better care and respect for patients, better treatment of and respect for healthcare professionals, value for public money, and prevention of waste. At the same time, one hopes it does not produce further erosion of public trust, collective responsibility and social justice. I am confident that Ken, long dissenting of the individualistic turn in medicine, would share such a hope.