How are NHS financial pressures affecting patient care?

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Part of The impact of NHS financial pressures on patient care

The NHS is experiencing increasing financial pressure, but what does this mean for patients? This is a difficult question to answer because, while evidence on the extent of the NHS’s financial problems is piling up, information on the impact on patients remains scarce for a number of reasons.

First, across the country patient care varies for many reasons beyond the size of the local NHS budget: decisions about the care available to individuals are influenced by national bodies, local commissioners and providers, and clinicians at the bedside. Unlike health services in some other countries, the NHS does not specify a list of treatments that it will provide. Instead, patients have a series of broad legal rights (laid out in the NHS Constitution) and their care is influenced by a wide range of factors such as national policy initiatives, clinical guidelines, what’s been available locally in the past and current local priorities and needs. While decisions made by national bodies, commissioners and providers play an important role, clinicians’ decisions ‘at the bedside’ and the discussions they have with patients ultimately determine the care that each individual receives. So if an individual’s care differs from recommended practice or from the care someone else received, it may not necessarily be the result of financial factors.

Second, when budgets are cut or (more likely) do not grow in line with patient demand, some providers go into deficit. By overspending, providers may be protecting patients from the worst effects of funding pressures, meaning data on financial performance does not tell us anything about the impact on patients.

Third, sometimes restricting access to care may not be motivated by budgetary concerns even if it leads to a reduction in spending. It may mean better outcomes for patients, for example, if a treatment is ineffective or the risks of receiving it outweigh the benefits. There is extensive evidence of overtreatment in health services, so when referral rates go down or access to services changes, we should not always view this negatively.

Finally, tightening budgets can motivate providers to improve productivity. There are many examples of innovations that both improve the quality of patient care and cut costs, delivering better value.

Although the impact of financial pressures can be difficult to identify, it can and does affect patient care. In their paper, Thinking about rationing, Rudolf Klein and Jo Maybin described six ways in which this can happen:

  • deflection – individuals are bounced from one funder to another (eg, from the NHS to the local authority) or between organisations (eg, from the GP practice to A&E)
  • delay – people have to wait longer for treatment
  • deterrence – people do not access services because the NHS (either intentionally or unintentionally) makes it difficult for them to find out about services or book an appointment
  • denial – people are not routinely provided with certain treatments
  • selection – individuals with particular characteristics (like being obese or smokers) are not eligible for certain treatments
  • dilution – patients receive a lower-quality service as resources are spread more thinly.

Now, we have examined in more detail what each of these ways of restricting care means for the NHS and how individuals can see the impact in their own local health system.

Of the six ways mentioned above, the media often focuses on stories about patients who do not receive care because of delay (including stories about people waiting longer in A&E departments) or selection (including recent calls for the NHS to provide the meningitis B vaccine for children up to age 11 (currently the vaccine is only offered as part of the NHS routine childhood vaccination programme for babies)).

However, equally important and much more difficult to identify are examples of dilution, where patients still receive care, but that care is of lower quality. Mental health patients in some areas appear to have seen a dilution in the quality of care provided by the NHS as a result of increased demand for services and changes to the skill mix of mental health teams. While the number of people using mental health services in England is rising (by 5.1 per cent between 2011/12 and 2012/13) the number of contacts that each individual has with the service is falling (by 4.3 per cent over the same period). This means that more people are receiving treatment, but their treatment involves fewer appointments or contacts with the service.

Another example is district nursing, where reductions in staff numbers have contributed to workload pressures. Three-quarters of the community and district nurses surveyed by the Royal College of Nursing in 2013 said that necessary activities were left undone because of a lack of time.

In both of these examples, the line between an effective productivity improvement and a service change that reduces quality is blurred. This adds to the challenge in identifying instances of dilution.

To explore this further, over the next nine months we are researching the impact of the slowdown in NHS funding since 2010 on patient care by looking in detail at four services. We hope to get closer to answering the difficult (but crucial) question of what the financial pressures in the NHS mean for patients.



Chair of Development Fund,
Torbay Mencap Local
Comment date
06 April 2016
Ruth Robertson's article is all too familiar. Cuts impact particularly on disadvantaged minorities such as the group we represent People with Learning Difficulty (PWLD).
For years Torbay has been lauded as a model of integrated care yet a recent forced top down integration of Torbay Care Trust (Torbay Council + NHS) with Torbay District General Hospital has put the PWLD community back 35 years. Early in the 1980s I was part of a successful campaign to move PWLD care out of large isolated institutions to a Care in the Community model. In particular to remove it from the funding remit of acute hospitals.
Here we are now with our new caring NHS and the first result for Torbays PWLD is the closure of the only respite care center. Which was the last line of defence for families and particularly for elderly carers.
The consultation process for this closure was a travesty all the key decisions on closure had been taken before user families were informed.
PWLD are a key litmus group for NHS care for disadvantaged groups.
Torbay Mencap is hosting a conference to air this and many other problems on April 29th.
John Duffin

Nick Welch

International Ambassador,
Bone and Joint Decade
Comment date
03 April 2016
The pressure all health and care providers are put under is intolerable. Those responsible for funding the NHS must accept responsibility for the budgetary restrictions that have led to the decline in patient care, and address the issue. There are too few trainee GPs, and JHDs are being pressurised out of the NHS. Sadly the current Administration has not the wit to listen, nor the compassion to care.

John Wattis

visiting Professor of Old Age Psychiatry,
University of Huddersfield.
Comment date
01 April 2016
For Mental Health Services, there is also the problems that, in times of financial stringency, Commissioners will tend to de-fund Mental Health (where they hope the impact will be less visible) in order to soften the burden on General Acute Hospital Sevices. One Award-winning Mental Health Provider (NAViGO in Grimsby) has actually started to run a public campaign about this issue after the CCG has failed adequately to respond to their concerns,

Umesh Prabhu

Wrightington Wigan and Leigh FT
Comment date
01 April 2016
It is a sad reality that when there is financial pressure patients suffer. It is not simply patients who suffer but when there is financial pressure suffer as well. Trusts are reluctant to appoint more staff, any vacancies are unfilled, agency staff are not appointed unless the Trusts are desperate, staff are under stress, sickness goes up and one runs in to vicious circle.

Happy staff - Happy patients should be the guiding principles of NHS. The only way NHS staff can care for patients is by caring for staff and engaging staff and supporting, motivating and inspiring staff.

It is important for King's Fund not only to do a study in impact on patient care but also staff well-being because of financial pressure.

Having said this, personally I feel NHS does have enough money but sadly lot of money is wasted by silos working, poor leadership, poor culture, culture of naming, shaming, discipline and poor governance and accountability. NHS must appoint values based leaders, with robust staff and patient engagement but more so clear accountability for leaders as well as clinical staff and if done well NHS can save £20 Billion a year which can be re-invested for Mental health, Primary care, IT, Dementia. Social care, elderly care and staff development.

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