The Opportunity of the Additional Role Reimbursement Scheme

By far the largest amount of funding in the PCN DES is for the Additional Role Reimbursement Scheme (ARRS).  But is general practice making the most of the opportunity that such an investment represents?

To put the funding into context, a PCN with a weighted list size of 50,000 will receive £356,600 under the ARRS.  This size of PCN will have funding for more than 7 roles this year.  This will rise to £618,600 next year, £850,900 the year after, and reach £1.17M in 2023/24 (network contract DES guidance p20). The £7.13 per weighted patient PCNs receive for the ARRS for this year compares to a combined total of £5.61 for all of the other funding in this year’s specification put together (excluding the care home premium, which is not going to significantly alter the figures).

The funding is not, however, given as a lump sum.  It is paid a month in arrears based on the actual expenditure made by the PCN.  A PCN must, “complete and return to the commissioner a workforce plan, using the agreed national workforce planning template, providing details of its recruitment plans for 2020/21 by 31 August 2020 and indicative intentions through to 2023/24 by 31 October 2020” (6.5.1 Network contract DES Specification, p36).

We are currently at the end of May.  Assuming a PCN has not yet employed any additional staff (although I know some have, many have not), our 50K weighted population PCN now has funding for 9.3 additional roles.  If the PCN waits until the end of August (the deadline for submitting its plan), it will have funding for 11.6 additional roles.  The longer we go into the year, the harder it is going to be to spend the money.  Once we are over a third of the way in next year’s funding is unlikely to cover the incurred recurrent expenditure even if we do manage to spend it all.

Any money allocated to a PCN that can’t be spent will be offered to “other PCNs within the commissioner’s boundary”.  So a smart PCN will not only be well into planning how to use its ARRS funds, it will also be looking at its neighbouring PCNs and working out whether they going to be able to use all their funding and preparing accordingly.

This year, impacted already by covid as it has been, does present general practice with something of an opportunity when it comes to ARRS.  In effect there is 12 months funding available for 6 months of work, because the requirements of the specifications only start on October 1st.  The argument has been that the roles should be supporting core general practice, not simply carrying out additional work mandated by the PCN DES.  Well it may or may not be by design, but that opportunity is certainly there now for this year for PCNs.

The question, then, is how should PCNs respond?  With such a wide array of roles (10 in total) available, what roles should PCNs be prioritising?

Let’s take the work to meet the requirements of the specifications as a given, and focus on what to do with the roles beyond that.  The specifications are not going to require all of the ARRS funding, and certainly will not this year.  Once the specification requirements are met, it seems there are two ways to think about how to use the new roles.

The first is to focus on the roles that will free up the most GP time.  The biggest challenge in general practice for a long time now has been GP workload, and so it would be logical to use this funding on the roles that most directly reduce GP workload.  This would lead to a focus on first contact physiotherapists, physician associates, pharmacists and (next year) paramedics, as roles that can directly have this impact.

The second is to focus on the roles that can change the shape of demand into GP practices.  Instead of reacting to the incessant rise in demand on practices, this may be an opportunity to do something about it.  A team made up of some combination of social prescribers, health and wellbeing coaches, occupational therapists, dietitians, podiatrists and care coordinators may be able to start with the currently shielded and housebound patients, and prepare a PCN for the anticipatory care and personalised care specifications that are on their way in future years.  By proactively meeting the needs of those patients who are the biggest drivers of demand on PCN practices, the constantly rising demand may be slowed.

These two approaches are not mutually exclusive.  It may be that some combination to the two is what is needed locally.  And of course there may be others.  What is important for PCNs is to be clear on what they are trying to achieve with the new roles, before they start deciding which specific roles they want to employ.

It is rare that general practice finds itself with an opportunity like this, backed up with such significant resources.  I very much hope we make the most of it.

The impact of virtual working

The working day has transformed for many people (including me!) in recent weeks, and one of the key changes has been the shift to Zoom (or Teams, or Hangouts, or Skype) video calls for meetings.  Zoom has been a vital part of managing during the pandemic, enabling rapid communication and decision making without the need for in-person meetings or travel.

But how is the shift to Zoom affecting relationships?  While some are reporting that the increased communication means relationships have never been better, others are finding that relationships are beginning to suffer.

There are a number of reasons for this.  Firstly, it turn out that Zoom fatigue is “a thing”.  This HBR article explains that the focus required in video calls, the ability to get distracted by other things, plus the need to be paying attention the whole time, all contribute to this growing phenomenon of Zoom fatigue.  This BBC article (I told you it was a thing) also suggests the need for greater focus means people cannot relax into conversations.

I am not sure it is just about getting used to the technology.  I think the ease with which we can hold the meetings actually leads to more meetings than we had before.  This is quite some feat, given the NHS’s penchant for back to back meetings.

At the same time, there can be something impersonal about Zoom meetings.  This humorous video (which I am sure you have already seen) reduces attendees into certain types.  It does seem to me that it is a difficult platform on which to actively build personal relationships.  Alongside the rapid growth in group video meetings we seem to be having less one on one meetings.  It is so easy to add people into a call that meetings are rarely with less than 4 people, and regularly with many more.  The cost of this is potentially individual, personal relationships.

What should we do?  This National Geographic article suggests when people start to experience Zoom fatigue then they should join meetings with the camera off.  This is because it is far less exhausting to not feel like you are in the spotlight every time you have a meeting.  But then the people with the cameras on assume you are not paying attention and more than likely doing something else.  Once again, it is relationships that can suffer.

And where there are disagreements individuals can often prepared to be much more forceful in their views when they are on a video call (but with the camera turned off) than they would have been face to face.

The basis of collaborative working is relationships and trust.  Communication is a key part of building trust.  But if the communication does not feel personal, is tiring, and even negative or aggressive, then relationships will suffer not improve.   Simply holding more Zoom meetings is not going to improve relationships per se.

I find myself in the camp that would say if you are going to be in a Zoom call then you need to commit to it and have the camera on.  More helpful, then, than the advice to join meetings with the camera off is the advice in this article which suggests 5 alternatives to zoom meetings we might want to try.  These include the “old-fashioned” phone call, holding shorter video conferences, and scheduling days without them.

Ultimately, what I think we need to do is prioritise relationships.  If we are finding that Zoom calls are enhancing relationships, building trust, and enabling collaborative working then great, carry on.  But where we find relationships are starting to suffer we need to take time to reflect on why, and identify what changes we need to make to rebuild those relationships.

Zoom has had a transformative effect on my life in recent weeks.  I am certainly not advocating abandoning something that has had such an impact.  I am, however, suggesting we review its effect on us and our work beyond simple convenience, to ensure it enhances what we do rather than detracts from it.

Holding the Gains

There is a lot of talk at present about improvements that have been made as a result of the crisis.  These changes include the move to remote working, connected teams, practices working together to create “hubs” for patients to be seen in, data sharing between practices and organisation, and systems working together to make decisions based on needs.  I am sure there are many others.

As a result, exercises are emerging (often management led) in identifying the changes we want to keep, and even considering how we can take these changes even further.

There is a presumption, it seems, that the changes made in response to the crisis, are somehow “locked in” for the post-covid future.  But the reality is of course that change is never that simple.  It would be unwise to underestimate the impact the level of recent change has had on individuals, and the discomfort it has caused.  A change made in response to a national crisis is very different from a change made in perpetuity.  Throw in a bit of conspiracy theory that there is some masterplan to move away from the core general practice model, and it is not hard to understand why holding the gains made so far will be a challenge, let alone building on them.

What do we know about sustaining improvements?  Nicola Bateman produced a guide on the sustainability of improvements made back in 2001.  The research was based on the sustainability of changes implemented rapidly in an improvement workshop, but there is a useful parallel here to changes made rapidly in general practice in a covid environment.

What she found was that there are 5 ways changes can go:

She divided the post programme period into two phases.  The first 3 months is primarily concerned with maintaining the new way of working and resolving the technical issues identified during the initial improvement period, and whether these are tackled and resolved.

The Class A and B classifications closed out the actions on the problem follow-up list and maintained the new way of working.  Class C maintained the new way of working but failed to close out tasks, and Class D activities closed out the tasks but did not maintain the new way of working.  Class E activities failed to do either.

There are lots of interesting lessons in this for us.  Beyond understanding that the only way is not up, it highlights that problems identified along the way to making these rapid improvements still need to be tackled and dealt with.  According to Bateman, they also need contribution and buy-in from the relevant teams, “making sure that the people who work in the area can contribute to the way in which their area is operated”.

A change implemented out of necessity, steamrollering any resistance along the way, will need engagement of teams to adapt that change to give it a chance of becoming permanent.

Bateman also advises, “ensuring that the team members and their managers remain focussed on the improvement activity”.  The idea that remote working (for example) is somehow “done” because it has been going for a few weeks misses the need to be continually addressing issues that arise and adapting it to meet the needs of the practice and its staff.  We are not yet at a point where any of the changes we have put in place so far could be considered permanent.

The second phase Bateman divided the post programme period into was from 3 months to 9 months after the initial changes were made.  This period is concerned with whether there is any ongoing improvement beyond the initial change period.  Class A is what happens when ongoing improvement is in place, as opposed to Class B where there is not.

Being able to make further improvements after these initial gains requires three things: consistency and buy-in; having a strategic direction; and (senior) support and focus.  So making the most of the opportunity that seemingly now exists will be no mean feat.  It will require a practice to adapt its medium term strategic direction, with full buy-in of the GPs and practice staff, and to develop a clear plan for moving forward.

There are five ways we can go from here.   If we are really serious about holding and even building on the gains made in recent weeks then we need to understand there is a lot of work to be done in keeping things as they currently are, let alone taking them beyond the current level.

The Care Home Debacle

Nothing has gone well when it comes to care homes in this pandemic.  Care home staff trying to look after an extremely vulnerable group of patients have been left on their own, without access to the support, resources or equipment they need.  Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that between 10 and 24 April, there were 4,343 recorded deaths from Covid-19 in residential care homes.  The number of deaths in care homes is rising at a higher rate than hospitals.  Frustration with the lack of support has grown, not just among staff and relatives but more widely across the country.

It is probably in response to this frustration that Simon Stevens announced in his letter to the NHS on Wednesday 29 April, “To further support care homes, the NHS will bring forward a package of support to care homes drawing on key components of the Enhanced Care in Care Homes service and delivered as a collaboration between community and general practice teams. This should include a weekly virtual ‘care home round’ of residents needing clinical support.”

Now anyone paying attention to the events surrounding the 2020/21 PCN DES will have been able to predict the reaction from general practice.  One of the most contentious issues surrounding this year’s PCN DES was the specification that related to enhanced care in care homes with the workload implications it contained for GPs.  Eventually a care home ‘premium’ of £120 per bed was agreed, with a trimmed down version of the specification to be implemented from October 1st, that allowed for “appropriate and consistent medical input from a GP or geriatrician, with the frequency and form of this input determined on the basis of clinical judgement” (as opposed to mandatory GP participation in weekly ward rounds at each home).

But this was a fragile compromise at best, and so it was no surprise that the new announcement attracted a vehement response from the GPC.  Chair Dr Richard Vautrey said the next day, “We were incredibly disappointed to see in the letter from NHS England yesterday that it intends to bring forward the introduction of key elements of the care home specification without engaging with the profession, and in the full knowledge of the serious concerns many in the profession have previously expressed about this earlier this year.  We have told NHS England and Improvement that this approach is unacceptable. The profession will be rightly dismayed that this element of the contract scheduled for October, which depended on an expanded workforce and additional resources, could be imposed without either being provided.”

Cue some backtracking from NHS England.  It turns out that anyone thinking that Simon Stevens letter was about bringing forward the DES specification was wildly mistaken.  In fact, as a letter from NHS England on the 1st May clarified, it is rather a service that needs to be established “as part of the COVID-19 response”.  Of course it not the PCN DES specification, because, “We are looking for all practices to take part, not just Primary Care Networks (PCNs). However, it will be less burdensome for general practice, easier for community partners and better for care homes for this to be delivered at a PCN level as the default.”  What were we thinking?

But however we got here, we are where we are.  If we have learnt anything from coronavirus it is surely that care homes need to be tied much more closely into the health and social care system, and there is a  clear and pressing need right now to provide better support to care homes.  Such a need in fact that NHS England has outlined a two week deadline(!) for the new service to be put in place.

I know there are some places around the country that have tackled this in the past and have arrangements in place that effectively mean all the new requirements are already met.  There are, however, others where there are vast numbers of residential homes and no such arrangements in place.  The challenge in these areas cannot be underestimated.

Let’s hope the wider system puts the support and resources into general practice and PCNs that will be needed for an effective response to be mobilised.  And let’s hope that care homes start to get the support that has been so sadly lacking so far through this crisis.

Where are we up to with PCNs?

It has been very hard to think of anything other than covid for the last 6 or so weeks, but it feels like we are now just reaching the point where we can start to consider where other issues are up to.  In particular, PCNs were a controversial topic in the first three months of the year, and the deadline for signing up to the 20/21 DES is fast approaching.  So where did things with PCNs get to?  Time for a recap.

The 20/21 PCN DES got off to a bad start when the draft specifications were published just before Christmas.  What followed was widespread uproar over the level of specificity they contained, the financial implications for practices, and the lack of any additional funding to go with the new workload requirements.

These were only drafts for consultation, and following a torrent of negative feedback the GPC and NHS England commenced negotiations on the new contract.  The result was a reduction in both the volume and specificity of the service specifications (leaving only three: structured medication reviews and medicines optimisation; enhanced health in care homes; and supporting early cancer diagnosis), a commitment to fully fund the new roles (as opposed to providing 70% funding), and additional funding for the care home specification.

What followed this agreement between the GPC and NHS England was a general calming down, and a sense that what was on offer was much more reasonable.  However, underlying concerns about what PCNs mean for the independent contractor model persisted.  These culminated in a vote at the special conference of England LMCs on the 11th March, which decided to reject the agreed DES specification.

Before anyone really had a chance to react to this, covid happened.  Indeed it was only 8 days later that NHS England published a letter detailing further changes to the PCN DES.  These changes were designed to do two things: push the work back until after covid (the start date for the new specifications were essentially all moved to 1st October); and use the PCN DES to release money into general practice to support with the crisis.  The new Investment and impact fund was replaced for its first 6 months with a PCN support payment of 27p per weighted population (not contingent on performance), and the funding for all the new roles (PCNs now have an additional role reimbursement scheme (ARRS) allowance from which they can fund any of 10 new roles) was made available despite the specifications not starting until October.  Indeed all the PCN DES funding has been made available to practices who sign up from April.

These changes were confirmed in the covering letter for the final PCN DES specification which was published on 31 March.  NHS England has been clear that they made sure this came out not because of a stubborn commitment to PCNs, but to ensure that money continued to flow to PCNs in the midst of the pandemic.

So the PCN DES specification is out.  Practices have until 31 May to decide if they want to participate.  Sign up is easy, especially if the PCN is not changing its membership.  Practices simply confirm their ongoing participation to the commissioner.  Once signed up practices remain signed up for the year, and cannot withdraw during the course of the year.

There have been some concerns that by signing up for this year practices are committed for a longer period.  That is not the case.  The system does change to one of opt-out rather than opt-in from April 2021, but the process of opt-out is straightforward.  The practice must simply, “notify the commissioner within one calendar month of the publication by NHS England and NHS Improvement of the specification for the subsequent Network Contract DES” (Network Contract DES Specification 4.13.1).

The GPC are encouraging sign up, as are many LMCs (e.g. Surrey and Sussex).  The rationale is it represents a vehicle to channel funding into general practice in the national effort to deal with the pandemic, and it continues to enable a structure for much needed collaboration between practices to enhance support and resilience for practices at local level.  Other LMCs (e.g. Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire) remain fundamentally opposed and so are taking a more neutral stance and neither recommending practices sign up or don’t sign up.

So this is where we are.  My 10 cents for what it is worth is that with all the uncertainty that covid brings for the next 12 months this isn’t the time to be walking away.  The PCN DES brings significant funding and resources into general practice over the whole year, while the additional work is only for 6 months (and that is assuming we don’t have any future covid disruption).  Even if you are not sure about PCNs it is not difficult to opt out next year, so you are not making a lifelong commitment.  Covid has changed everything, and the PCN DES is no exception.

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