In 2015/16, health and social services will get a pooled budget of £3.8 billion for the express purpose of helping them work more closely together to deliver a 'Better Care Plan' - in other words, to help them implement a joined-up approach to patient care. The question is: can it be done?
There are many sceptics who suggest that NHS and local authority processes and priorities are just too different for a unified approach to work effectively. But I think they are wrong.
There are some great examples out there of social care and health teams working hand-in-hand. In Staffordshire, Macmillan Cancer Support and nine commissioners across social care, health, Public Health England and NHS England are working together to transform cancer and end-of-life care for patients - importantly, focussing on the entire patient journey rather than teams' individual roles.
In Liverpool, fuelled by a keen awareness that the area suffers one of the lowest life expectancy figures in the country, health and adult services have come together. Among other initiatives, they have created health hubs where multi-disciplinary teams work together to address patients' specific needs - rather than passing patients from pillar to post for different assessments from different teams. Patients get tailored packages of care and as a result 56% return home requiring no further secondary care.
Avoiding emergency admissions and re-ablement of patients are key metrics for assessing the effectiveness of the Better Care Fund. Liverpool is showing that such outcomes are not unreasonable.
It is still early days and projects such as this face testing budgetary challenges but they do demonstrate the feasibility of such joined up care, if patients are put at the heart of it. Samih Kalakeche, director of health and adult social care at Liverpool city council, put it best when she said that there was a need to move beyond a mentality of "I am NHS" or "I am local authority". It's not about job function, it is about patient outcomes and how collaboration can yield the best results.
Of course, it takes more than the right mentality and a willingness to work together to make true integration possible. The right tools need to be in place and this kind of care needs technology that effectively and securely shares patient information. Collaborative care is hindered if one part of a joined up team cannot access key information on the patient's treatment.
The good news is that the technology already exists. System interoperability, secure shared records access, and apps that enable patients to view their record via a mobile device - giving them key conditions and medications at their fingertips to show care providers - means that IT can no longer be waved as a red flag in the face of progress.
So can the Better Care Fund really work? Will it mean better care? There are no guarantees but the evidence from real projects on the frontline coupled with the technology to enable more joined up care makes me hopeful for the future. For patients, it will mean a more streamlined and holistic approach to their care, with less bureaucracy and more focus on end-to-end care plans. For the NHS, it means the potential for more efficiency and less wastage from duplicated processes. A win for both sides.Suggest a correction