Ask the right questions, get the right evidence

This is the second of my two thoughts about pressures being faced by patient advocacy.

There have been a number of recent articles in journals lamenting the failure of patient advocates to respect the principles of evidence-based medicine (EBM). It is a consistent low grumble from the science community, to which a small group are deeply wedded, while a majority probably have some sympathy with the point but also have some sympathy with the stance being taken by patient advocates.

There has been a change in the attitudes of regulators. Not that long ago they too were wedded to the evidence-base and they would maintain that this principle still underpins their decision-making. But in that decision-making, and therefore in the processes and procedures they employ, they are being more pragmatic. That has been partly driven by patient advocacy.

Some voices in the regulatory community are also identifying the issue which I believe needs to be addressed and which EBM protagonists seem to be studiously ignoring.  It is quite a big question.

Are we gathering the right evidence in clinical trials and in the way we measure and report real-world clinical care?

No-one in medical research seems to be addressing this effectively. A few are tinkering around the edge of the issue and for some, the idea that we are not gathering the right evidence, is like voicing heresy.

Cancer clinical trials are focussed on some measure of survival or tumour response to treatment. The so-called ‘gold standard’ measure of Overall Survival becomes difficult when a treatment is one of a succession of different therapies. A wide range of surrogate measures are used as a substitute. These are often dependent on some degree of investigator interpretation so are inherently unreliable, a factor which it is convenient to forget.  Side effects of treatment are an important issue and these are reported too, usually using an investigator applied judgement of severity against the CTCAE standards.

All this is a focus on objective measurement of the disease and the effect the treatment has on the disease. No-one is denying that this is important but where are the measures focussed on the patients themselves and the effect on them, their subjective reporting.

This is what patient advocates have been pursuing with their regulatory campaigns which the EBM stalwarts claim ignore the evidence-base. The advocates have an evidence-base in patient stories and anecdotes, but it is not one which they are in a position to measure, the professionals are not measuring it and have been ignoring it for more than twenty years.  So the EBM complainants, writing stridently about patient advocates not playing their game, would do well to look at themselves and their colleagues.

Are they asking all the right questions: are they gathering all the right evidence?

There is a side issue here about patient involvement. It is an issue which patient involvement cannot easily address and could be used as an excuse for inaction. Untrained involved patients do not necessarily see this ‘right evidence’ issue, they are often overwhelmed with understanding the planned outcomes and endpoints in a study. This assumes, of course, that they are consulted at a timepoint when they can actually input such ideas.

The second side issue is that we have much better ‘big data’ now than we have ever had. The ability to look at clinical practice across years, aggregating the experience of thousands of patients, means that retrospective analysis can provide valuable information and new insights. The question is, are we asking all the right questions in these analyses if the right questions were not asked when the data was being first gathered?

So the challenge for the data analysts is not to turn EBM into a self-justifying paralysis of ideas which ignores the patient?

Pressures are building on patient advocacy

Two pressures are building on patient advocacy. We do need to draw a line here between patient advocacyand patient involvement. The former are patients or professionals working towards a specific objective such as getting a new treatment approved, or raising awareness of an issue amongst politicians. That can be correctly called advocacy. Patient involvementis the drawing in of patients with ‘lived experience’ to a structure so that their experience based input, whether considered or ad hoc, can be taken into account alongside other views. There is of course no clear boundary line, partly because the same patients can be doing both. The two terms can be confused and issues which apply to one can also be inappropriately applied to the other.

What are these two pressures, and why are they unique to theadvocacyagenda?

The first is the influence of pharma companies, the funding they provide to patient charities and the influence that the funding opens up. There are regular, sometimes well informed, articles in both professional journals and the wider press raising concerns.

These concerns are real because recent history shows us what can happen. One example was a breast cancer charity that accepted funding for a policy post which actively promoted that pharma company’s drug to politicians and created patient activity supporting it. Quite often funding was sheltered through a local PR company.  Matters became more subtle in the mid 2000s and funding related to ‘projects’ rather than core activities. One not unusual ‘project’ was funding charity staff to attend an educational conference at a foreign and very pleasant venue, all costs covered. Regulations which required openness about funding followed and pharma companies now declare who and what they have funded in great detail. Charities have no such regulatory requirement from the Charity Commission although many do declare what they have received and for what purpose. Some healthcare charities will not accept industry funding at all and declare that policy openly. It is not tidy and while this lack of openness remains there will always be critics eager to point fingers at one or the other party.

Where this becomes an issue is with regulatory affairs. Patient groups and charities are often asked to provide an input to regulatory discussion, usually a paper, sometimes representation at meetings. Questions about financial influence are part of the preparation and a declaration of potential conflicting interests is requested. Some regulators are less searching than others.  Charities all have a different approach to completion of these requests and I do not believe that any regulator has a requirement that the CEO must sign the declaration.  Understandably charities which have little or no involvement with industry find these forms tiresome, not always understanding their purpose. The aim is not to eliminate input but to provide a perspective which reflects the real-life of working with and supporting patients. I have spoken with regulatory committee members who tell me they weigh up what is put forward by patient advocates at a meeting, taking into account the declared potential for conflicts of interest, but not discounting the input provided.

It is time matters were tidied up. The Charity Commission could regulate how charities declare commercial grants in their accounts and charities themselves could carry a declarations page on their website, as some already do. The regulators could work together to have a common declaration approach and individual advocates should make declarations (already required by some regulators) so that their personal situation is clear.

If there was this kind of clarity pharma company lawyers might be able to stop twitching so much and make the matter of financial support where it is proper, appropriate and open happen more easily. In addition researchers or journalists who get a ‘bee in their bonnet’ about inappropriate influences could be quietened, although I doubt they will ever be eliminated and, to be fair, the questions need to be asked.

The second advocacy influence is about understanding evidence-based medicine. It overlaps with the first issue above because some pharma companies could be accused of fostering a preparedness to ignore evidence. More about that in my next contribution to the debate.



Questions, questions … but can we get them answered?

Academic interest in patient involvement has been dominated recently by evaluation. We at last have a growing recognition that involvement is not an intervention, like sticking a needle in, but an influence over process which acts subtly and sometimes covertly to effect change over a period of time. There is rarely a single identifiable point of ‘impact’, the change may be subtle and only evident through reporting by those involved, researchers, managers, funders and patients themselves.

So what is the next challenge for our researchers? There certainly seems to be plenty of  content, the challenge is finding the questions to resolve.  Lets try a list of unanswered questions, not worded yet as proper research questions and to be fair, some might not make it that far:

  • How do we draw the lines between patient and public in involvement?
  • What is “lived experience” for the purpose of defining patient involvement?
  • How do we ensure we get the right people for the right role?
  • How do we report involvement as a key element of research?
  • If we sack an involved patient how do we report that?
  • What questions should we ask researchers to help find the value of involvement?
  • How should we ask researchers those questions?
  • How can we remunerate involved patients without creating conflicts of interest?
  • Are there ethical issues we should address to empower more effective involvement?
  • Is effective involvement pragmatic, or driven by philosophical and cultural change?

That’s ten to start with. I could go on.

One of the challenges is getting these questions, and others like them, aired. In this world of evidence based medicine research proposals are usually supported by a literature search from which the prospective funders can identify that the research question is a valid one. Thus research builds up in an organic manner, with a traceable provenance. In patient involvement there is little evidence, as yet, in the literature with the result that provenance is largely impossible to identify. One of the challenges for researchers who wish to raise questions like these, even as a commentary or discussion point for a journal, is that there is no evidence to point to that the question is important. The editor will not publish. It is a chicken and egg situation.

I am suggesting something which steps outside the usual ‘evidence based medicine’ criteria. As usual, remember that this is a patient making the suggestion, I have only one interest – getting questions answered so that patient involvement improves.

My appeal is that those journals which are happy to report or commentate on patient involvement, few but growing in number, encourage such new questions to be aired and debated relying only on the evidence that there is a question which informed people are discussing. The aim is that researcher groups will pick up on these ideas and have a reference base, however small, to work with when they seek funding for a full research project.


I do not suppose that I am alone in finding that as far as cancer is concerned the NHS Long Term Plan, published on Monday, is admirable if somewhat underwhelming and, to be fair, cancer is only a small element in the whole. Its primary focus is on diagnosis.  There is no mention of the loss of valuable skills caused by Andrew Lansley as Secretary of State for Health in 2010-12, although work on Cancer Alliances to mend the damage proceeds.

The paragraphs on cancer in the Long Term Plan start with the following:

3.51. Cancer survival is the highest it’s ever been and thousands more people now survive cancer every year. For patients diagnosed in 2015, one year survival was 72% – over 11 percentage points higher than in 2000.

As a general point that should be borne in mind, even if NHS idiosyncrasy was not taken into consideration, evolution in clinical practice would account for much of that improvement. Indeed it can be argued that if progress on the 2007 Cancer Reform Strategy had not been politically diverted we would be showing even further improvement.  Things have obviously moved on and while not all of the 2007 ambitions were achieved the NAEDI National Awareness and Early Diagnosis Initiative, led by Cancer Research UK for the last 10 years, has been critically important. It identified many of the factors which result from the behaviour of patients, GPs or the wider NHS, in the diagnostic process and it underpins what is now planned.

The NHS Long Term Plan has these promises.

Assuming that full funding for these developments is forthcoming in practice and that staffing issues for radiographers, radiologists, pathologists, laboratory staff, nurses and oncologists of all kinds are addressed (given the effects of the B word) this will be a very welcome development and will go a long way towards meeting the cancer survival ambitions.

There is however a shadow, identified in the Health Foundation report Unfinished Businesspublished shortly before Christmas. This is the role of GPs as ‘gatekeepers’. Those with undiagnosed cancer rely on a GP having suspicion and initiating tests (the right tests) or making a referral. That will not alter although the frustrated will be able to self-refer to a Rapid Diagnostic Centre. These will certainly pick up some of the otherwise undiagnosed but not all. Indeed there will be some who attend a Rapid Diagnostic Centre who may not be diagnosed early – a small percentage of false negatives come from almost any test, there are always interpretation issues and some rare cancers have barely discernible characteristics at their early stage.  So from a patient viewpoint this is a welcome step forward but quantifying its potential is massively uncertain and success will rely on the skills levels available in the Diagnostic Centres, especially those located at a distance from a major cancer centre.

3.52. This Long Term Plan sets a new ambition that, by 2028, the proportion of cancers diagnosed at stages 1 and 2 will rise from around half now to three-quarters of cancer patients.

In 2007 we could not have stated an ambition in those terms. This target comes from the work that has been done on data, initiated in 2007. The National Cancer Registration & Analysis Services is a world leader in cancer data. In each tumour type the push to record staging data at diagnosis in the initial cancer registration is resulting in a much more accurate picture of prognosis at diagnosis. This can be compared with the eventual treatment outcome and also provides for targets such as this one.

The NHS remains excellent at creating ambitions while overlooking some of the issues. There are two things evident in the NHS Long Term Plan. First, it is not a plain English document.  Second it did not involve independently minded patients in its development but we have now come to expect that. Patient involvement has been reduced to tokenism in NHS cancer service provision. It cannot be described as patient-centred any more and a key weakness of the whole structure is that the voice of end-users is missing. The charities, good as many of them are, are not a substitute.

On the matter of creating ambitions while overlooking some of the issues I find it hard to believe that a faster diagnosis standard for sarcoma will emerge without resourcing specialist sarcoma units to handle it. Pathology skills, one example, are already at a premium. Over 50 primary diagnoses, with many variants by location, histology and surgical feasibility, suggest that words like “all” and “full”, which appear throughout the new plan, could be unrealistic. The case for genetic profiling to take over the challenge has no evidence base and apart from profiling the whole population I cannot see it working for sarcoma. I should like to be proved wrong.


There have been some thoughtful blogs recently on the subject of PPI in research from Simon Denegri (headless chickens) and Jim Elliot (mis-selling PPI), and an excellent editorial in the BMJ on evaluating PPI in research.  It may be time to put forward some of my thoughts about what is not happening and perhaps should be.

Patient and Public Involvement is too generic, the term is too imprecise, to allow it to be other than a mantra for ignorant management to follow.  It is difficult to implement unless those charged with actually doing it really understand what it involves.  As a result Jim’s dislike of the PPI abbreviation is widely shared by cognoscenti and those organisations which thoughtlessly perceive it as a route forward find themselves in Simon’s headless poultry farm. To cap it all after twenty years the research community still questions its value.

So if it is too generic how do we break it down? The immediate thing to do is to separate ‘patient’ and ‘public’.

Being an involved patient means bringing the “lived experience” of a disease or treatment to the table where it is relevant to have that experience available and expressed. In research this need is easily identifiable and a general public involvement is not required. For some roles you need a patient, nothing else works. Simple. Hmmm …

When you go beyond research into the more general arena of healthcare the public voice is important but the involvement of patients is also a need.  What that means is that a large overall part of generic PPI activity is actually about public involvement and the involvement of patients where a research focus is not present. However having patients involved is a management mantra (“look how clever we are, we are patient centred”) so there are contradictions and political expectations to be met.

The National Standards published last year call it all ‘public involvement’.  That distorts it. Research has specific needs .  Sadly these Standards point towards lowest common denominator corporate behaviour, the NIHR ignored my consultation suggestion of having a standard about senior management being actively engaged (over and above signing it off). That is what Simon is now calling for. Evaluation plays no real part in the Standards and that need is well described in the BMJ editorial.

So we have management mis-understanding, inappropriate pressures on front-line managers, lack of terminological precision, lack of ambition, conflciting purpose, no meaningful feedback about performance. Yet, we want more of it. Confused?

The general healthcare need for public involvement is about engaging the community, whether geographical or a community of interest which the organisation serves.  Recruiting, training and supporting public members is different from the processes for recruiting patients to be involved in research.  If there is a specific need for involving patients outside research (eg developing a new therapy suite) these can usually be easily handled because there is a local community involved.

My personal wish is to see the research issues sorted out. PPI in research is focussed on the “lived experience”, first-hand experience of a disease or treatment, and importantly patients are sought for what they can bring as individuals, not just because they belong to a defined community. They can be harder to find and, for example, ensuring that a rarer disease is represented can be all but impossible.  Inevitably this means that there are roles and occasions where a more generic experience is valid but putting in a member of the public solely because they are a member of the public is not appropriate.

We must manage these separate needs separately even when all these requirements may co-exist in one organisation. It must be recognised that they are different and should be managed in different ways.

I am sure that understanding this difference and recognising separate approaches according to need could help Simon’s chickens grow into fine oven-ready birds. Clear ideas about evaluation would probably help. As for a replacement acronym for PPI, assuming we cannot have an acronym-free environment, I give up. Identifying these different purposes will perhaps give focus to evaluation efforts, allowing us to develop involvement with a clear idea of how value can be recognised in all its different purposes.

Footnote: I recognise that there are some situations where the only way of tapping into the “lived experience” is through those who care for or lived with a patient. In these instances the carer’s “lived experience” is valued just as the patient’s would be.


NHS Cancer Performance – a helter-skelter of political incompetence

Heigh ho, its off to work we go. Those dwarves in Snow White had an enduring philosophy of hard work, tempered by compassion. I think their approach is mirrored by today’s cancer advocates, whether from professional or patient ranks. We have to speak truth to power, whether that is a wicked witch or a Tory government.

This government’s attitude to cancer stinks. It is now getting better after eight years of disinterest and decline. No doubt when challenged the government will point to new money arriving, they will not record the fact that performance standards are now lower than in 2012 when those standards were last revised and accepted, by them. Most of those standards repeated what had been in place for many years already and had been measuring the success of the policies and practices put in place by Professor Sir Mike Richards, the first national cancer director. The Coalition government had been in power for two years by 2012 and the disastrous policies of Conservative Secretary of State for Health Andrew Lansley (now ennobled) were beginning to bite. He was sacked in 2012 but the policies did not change.

This decline will continue, possibly for several more years. It takes time to turn the tanker round (another misplaced metaphor). It took time for the tanker to go off course in the early years of Tory rule because there was great momentum. The loss of the Cancer Networks in 2012 destroyed the NHS’s ability to learn and adapt in small ways, the dispersal of experienced staff with extensive knowledge into other roles wiped out a major resource. The recent invention of Cancer Alliances will hopefully correct that mistake but it will take time for the expertise to rebuild.

We have also seen major steps forward on such issues as early diagnosis. Sir Harpal Kumar’s Task Force produced an excellent report which the NHS accepted. What is not in the report is a recommendation that hospital operating capacity needs to expand to cope with more people being diagnosed earlier. The austerity-led reduction in capacity, seen by waiting lists in almost every surgical discipline, is impacting on cancer treatment targets and will continue to do so, possibly for years.

Maybe politicians did not see the linkage. Cutting nursing numbers impacts on areas such as surgical recovery, intensive care and theatre staff. Without the proper safe staffing levels surgery cannot take place. Closing one operating theatre for half the week so you can use what staff you have left more efficiently extends waiting times. What chance do performance standards have then?  At the same time improve diagnostic procedures in primary care thus increasing referrals into secondary care, and you extend the queue at the other end.

The equation is clear. One good + one bad = all bad. Sorry Harpal.

Increasing cancer resources with more surgeons or oncologists will not solve the cancer waiting time issues. It requires a major overhaul of staffing resources down the whole chain of treatment increasing the capacity of the NHS. It takes three years to train a nurse to staff level, and then further training for specialist care. At the very moment when we are about to exit the EU and possibly lose access to a major staffing resource, what chance rapid improvement?

Talk about screwing it all up. How to kill people invisibly. We made huge steps forward in the early 2000s. The now largely forgotten report by Professors Sir Ken Calman and Dame Deirdre Hine in 1995 records what cancer care was like then. We may not sink back to those standards but 2004, here we come.

The raw Performance Data is here

Excellent commentary on the data in the Guardian

PS: a real delight to see and have a chat with Sir Ken Calman at the NCRI Conference last week. Enjoying his role as Chancellor of Glasgow University where he first became a professor in the early 1980s.

In search of creative input for PPI

Patient and public involvement in research has been gaining a lot of attention in the professional journals recently. I am not sure whether this is a turning point or just a matter of coincidences. It seems that either researchers have woken up to the idea that this is an area where research is needed (it is) or that it is where opportunities lie for writing papers which enhance their CVs.

The paper which seems to have been written solely because it could be written, yet offers nothing to our understanding of patient and public involvement, could be called futile.  However, a paper which is has futile conclusions is not necessarily a bad paper, it may just point to a shortage of evidence. The paper which predictably has futile conclusions, even if the methodology employed is well-validated and robust, should be identified by peer review and rejected. The pursuit of futility is not science.

One problem here is that peer review in most professional journals rarely uses people who work in, or genuinely understand, patient and public involvement. The journals just don’t know who they are and most cannot be bothered to find out. So the chances of a reviewer challenging a paper as having little or no value is small. Usually such papers are sent to methodologists to review, a task they will relish, grist to the mill so to speak.

One of the reverse problems in patient involvement is that a good paper seeking to identify new understanding will be criticised by the methodologists because there is a lack of evidence to support its creative thinking. The lack of evidence is because researchers have not sought it. It can be partly attributed to the fact that creative understanding of patient involvement by those who do understand it is rare, and the ideas on which good research can be built are not aired publicly because journals will not publish them.

Quite a challenge!

We have recently seen a paper looking at “synthesising conceptual frameworks” for PPI in research. It is a commentary by methodologists on a systematic review first published in 2013 which put forward such a conceptual framework and identified priorities for research. The commentary is highly critical of the earlier work and goes on to state; “…this critical appraisal has usefullyhighlighted that there is a continuing, even urgent, needfor a more rigorous synthesis of conceptual frameworksfor PPI.”  The commentary offers no ideas about further research, suggesting that its authors actually know nothing about PPI, confining its suggestions to a need for “more robust conceptualisation” of  PPI frameworks.

From the viewpoint of one involved in patient and public involvement this verges on self-justifying nonsense. What PPI in research heeds is more people getting on with it, professionals and lay people working together.  Our ‘frameworks’ need to be created, reviewed, changed, evolved, reported, and all done in a timely way so we can all learn together.  Conclusion noted, this paper adds nothing. There may be other viewpoints but from that of PPI this was a research paper written for the sake of it. I hope it looks good on a CV.

Contrast the approach of another recent paper, also a critical commentary. It looked at the NIHR Standards published earlier this year. The Standards are seen as a step forward but many limitations are identified. Some are “simplistic”, even “optimistic”, and there is a need for guidance which can make implementation relevant to the objectives of PPI in any organisation or situation.  The conclusion states that the Standards: “… fail to address fundamental questions about when, why and with whom involvement should be undertaken in the first place.”  It goes on to add :“By addressing the justifications for patient and public involvement up front and acknowledging that there are contexts in which some types of involvement are inappropriate, a future version of the Standards or another guidancedocument could provide researchers with the overarching clarity they need.”   Here is some real value-added.

Both papers are addressing the need for better understanding of PPI based on good evidence. I would maintain that we must not be confined by traditional evidence-based approaches.  This is not about medicine but is about people.  We need to develop research ideas through creative understanding of what is happening and what has happened in the world of PPI in research, through understanding the people involved.  If we are to move forward effectively we need those creative ideas to help researchers identify where evidence about PPI can add value, to help develop the new ‘frameworks’ – they will start conceptual but require practical experience so they can become real.

That will keep up the momentum which PPI is developing.

The two papers referenced:

Synthesising conceptual frameworks for patient and public involvement in research – a critical appraisal of a meta-narrative review    David Evans, Noreen Hopewell-Kelly, Michele Kok and Jo White   BMC Medical Research Methodology (2018) 18:116

National Standards for Public Involvement in Research: missing the forest for the trees     McCoy MS, Jongsma KR, Friesen P, et al.     J Med Ethics Epub ahead of print: [accessed 12thOctober 2018]      doi:10.1136/medethics-2018-105088

PROs at the centre of cancer care

Chemotherapy or supportive and palliative care? Its a question which oncologists are increasingly addressing with their patients. People with advanced solid tumours, that is cancers which have spread to secondary sites, are very rarely curable, although maintaining stable disease for a significant time is increasingly possible. Symptomatic treatment with the aim of delivering a high quality of life may be preferable to a so-called curative approach.

One of the communication challenges is the widespread belief that chemotherapy in these circumstances will deliver a cure. Oncologists can do their best to help patients to understand the situation but they cannot educate family and friends. Patients often lack the necessary mastery of the information or the skills to convince their family of the reality. Family pressures to undergo chemotherapy can be very real for those who are already vulnerable.

The new targeted therapies do change the picture for some patients. If your tumour carries a genetic or biological target which is treatable extra time can be bought, sometimes with few side effects, although there can be a financial cost and cure remains rare. These drug costs are becoming a significant part of the NHS cancer drugs budget and the struggle to keep costs under control is highlighting the challenge which society faces, to understand the holistic value of these treatments.

Value lies in the underlying reality that secondary solid tumours kill their host. Patients without secondary tumours usually survive their cancer. Treatment with high cost drugs to prevent secondaries is a ‘holy grail’ for pharmaceutical companies, the demand would be very profitable. Their urge for acceptance of their costly new treatments excites the media, which rarely reports the realities.

Today’s realities offer a different picture. Early diagnosis and skilled primary treatment are the surest ways of delivering better survival. The renewed NHS focus on this is welcome. Cure represents value. However, there will always be people who, for whatever reasons, present late and with secondary tumours. Proper supportive care is needed for them and the NHS is not as good at responding to this need as it could be either in primary or secondary care. Attention to value is required.

The value issue principally focuses on those with secondary tumours which develop while in follow-up or care. How does treatment affect a patient’s life, whether that is chemo, new targeted drugs, interventions such as surgery or radiotherapy, or symptomatic care. What is the balance with cost? Health economics looks at ‘cost effectiveness’ but this is more about how a patient clinically responds, and for how long, to any treatment rather than how it affects their life.

Looking to meet the modern demand for an acronym Value can be defined this way (from a patient viewpoint):

Variations in my Actual Life and Usual Experience

Attempts to look more holistically at value to capture actual life and usual experience through the lens of patient reported outcomes (PROs), are still at an early stage. The tools which have been developed so far are clumsy and the challenges of implementing them effectively are still being worked out. There are good people working on this (not enough of them are actual patients) but many research organisations give it a low priority so funding is small and progress slow.

Regulators and legislators need to step into this area. Their work is increasingly relying on good data drawn directly from patients. The oncologist and patient who today are having that difficult conversation about chemo or not need the data too. Patient Reported Outcomes are the future shape of healthcare regulation and practice. They are not a nice add-on which appeals to ethics committees, they are an essential element in the science of treating people with disease. PROs can deliver an understanding of real Value to society. They must be taken seriously.

Patient Involvement and the Push for Technology

Our new Heath Secretary, Matt Hancock, owns up to being a technology enthusiast and he is already pushing some technology ideas even though the knees of his trousers can have barely touched the underside of his desk.

I often refer to the lessons of the past. Where technology in the NHS is concerned the lesson of NPfIT needs to come to mind. This was the ambition of connecting all NHS patient records and making them available on demand in every GP practice and every hospital. The National Programme for IT started in the early 2000s and was cancelled by the incoming Coalition government in 2010 by which time, a later parliamentary analysis showed, it had cost over £12bn.

What were the lessons?

It was a simple ambition. However no-one could specify it and the core principle for developing a big IT system is that there must be a specification. Technical requirements regularly changed, contractors came and went, some were sacked, enthusiasm grew, cost extensions were agreed by Ministers unquestioned because the ambition was so good. It was all top-down. A few sample GPs were asked what they needed to do their job effectively. Patients were not asked about having all their clinical data gathered together, they were told what was planned and asked to agree (I went to one of those meetings). Voices raising concerns about data privacy were not listened to. Voices raising concerns about the ability of the IT industry to deliver the scale of ambition were just scare-mongers – even though some of them had impeccable IT credentials.

Today’s IT implementations are dominated by apps and small computers (also known as smartphones). It is about putting “information in the hands of the people”. If they use it – success; if they don’t – failure. Costs are minimal and there seems to be a queue of potential providers willing to invest. So what’s wrong with that?

Nothing, if some underlying principles are observed.

First principle – specification. Any app which the NHS agrees to use must have an agreed specification with data portability and security probably top of the list.

Second principle – implications, which will be derived from an independent impact assessment. At the top of the list is clinical safety. And then there are the structural issues. For example an app aimed at working 20-35 years olds in a local area could change behaviour patterns and affect resourcing. Provision of those services to other age groups may deteriorate. Success can be more damaging than failure, it may create demands on the NHS which are difficult and costly to meet.

Third principle – patient involvement. This is less about “will patients use it?” and more about understanding the issues which patients will face while they are using it and having used it. This avoids ‘top-down’ thinking. An ongoing patient group (not a one-off meeting) which actively questions the developer should be an important pre-requisite for NHS approval.

Fourth – the rare situation. Anything clinical, relevant to the app, must be dealt with. It is no good having a remote GP system which fails to investigate a possible sarcoma, and it is no good triggering an investigation and overloading the NHS when a clinical examination (which cannot be done by an app) might deliver a diagnosis. This kind of situation is not uncommon and is not limited to diagnostic work. So called artificial intelligence can offer a lot but it is not the answer to everything – it has no hands.

Fifth – beware the hype. Anyone predicting cost savings in a marketing presentation is talking rubbish. There may well be savings but they will take time to deliver and will not reach anywhere near the scale that enthusiasts predict. Similarly anyone predicting volumes of take-up without having patients already advising them is talking through their hat.

Sixth – sustainability. Do not deal with anyone who has no certainty of being able to deliver their service in two or three years time. Anyone coming into health provision in this kind of way must be able to deliver over time.

Having a list like this might seem like building bureaucratic hoops for an entrepreneurial app developer to jump through. But, think hard.  Every one of these points is about the patient. It is not in the patient interest for any of these points to be avoided. It may be that enthusiasm and opportunity seem dominant for an enterprising Health Secretary but patients are at the heart of this.

Matt Hancock may be seeking a culture shift in the NHS towards greater use of small and large IT systems which can resolve some of the gaps in NHS service provision, open up new opportunities, and improve patient experience and the outcomes of treatment. However you cannot ‘put the patient at the centre’ of what you are doing if you do not involve patients in that development.

Involvement is not a single person, not a single meeting, not a presentation to a group. It is about active and ongoing engagement which allows patients to listen and understand, then relate their personal experience and the experience of others from whom they have learned, to a proposed development, to consider implications, to engage in conversations, to visualise, to use their common sense natural abilities to help deliver something which can benefit other patients.


Where next for patient involvement in research ?

A very welcome editorial in the BMJ will I hope give greater strength to the growing movement for provision of patient involvement in research.

I have been an ‘involved patient’ for 16 years. In the early days getting to understand research was the first challenge, we had no training available to us. Our professional research colleagues could hardly be more welcoming but were actually confused about how to handle us, could not recognise situations we could help with, and sometimes could not even handle the questions we asked. So we learned together.

There were a few enlightened researchers and leading doctors in those early days. It is almost unfair to pick two out for comment but they were outstanding in their recognition of the issues and in the way that they addressed them. Professor Sir Mike Richards, the first National Cancer Director, and Professor Peter Selby, the first Director of NCRN and later what is now NIHR CRN. Both realised that what they were changing was a process and that it would take time. We all wanted it to be quicker but there is an inertia in the affairs of man which means that changing established cultures can rarely be rushed.

There was a lot of pressure in the early years to demonstrate the ‘value’ of patient involvement as an intervention. By assessing its direct impact on a research project through something which may be as simple as a consent information sheet, the hypothesis was that the impact must be measurable. This question is still heard in Europe, voiced by research communities who do not want, for whatever reasons, to recognise the role that patients can play. Such assessment requires some kind of baseline against which the changed outcome can be compared. Most attempts to describe the impact of patient involvement in these terms have been trivial at best and laughable in many cases. Publication in a peer-reviewed journal is noticeably hard to find.

Patient involvement in research is about changing the processes by which research progresses. It does not change the science, although questions raised may cause design modifications by the scientists, but it modifies the environment – the timing, the nature of discussion, the emphases placed at different times, the interactions between team members etc. It will also bring in a different consideration of the impacts on patients entering the study, the ethical boundaries, the nature of communications with patients, and can play a part in deciding about data analyses and the promotion of results.

Even in the UK where patient involvement is now almost ubiquitous in healthcare research, this difference is not fully understood. Many research groups pride themselves on patient involvement which is in fact quite trivial, They involve patients in reviewing patient issues raised by their studies, reviewing consent information, sitting on Trial Management Committees, but have resisted a deeper involvement in the whole research process. That is their next step.

This puts an interesting burden on the researchers who are in such partnerships with patients. They must start to more consistently integrate their patients in everything they do. They must also report their subjective responses to these partnerships and the way they evolve so that we can build a picture of value which can help the more recalcitrant recognise the importance of involvement. We, the patients, cannot do this alone.

I welcome steps such as this week’s announcement by the BMJ that from next year it will not only require researchers to report on their patient involvement activity but also on the dissemination of their results to patients.

Every bit as important is the growing reach of the Biomed Central journal Research Involvement & Engagement. RI&E is the only peer-reviewed journal dedicated to papers on patient involvement. (I declare an interest – I am on the Editorial Board).

The moment is right for the debate about patient involvement to widen and develop on an informed basis. We have to find the mechanisms to create a common understanding of where we are today, the different models of involvement, the perceptions and expectations which we have individually and collectively based on the experiences we have had, and the reports of innovative practice and clearer thinking which have come through in the publication of papers on different implementations. We have the opportunity to define an agenda which sits comfortably with the research community and which can be implemented pragmatically, ultimately for patient benefit.

There are some underlying ‘big’ issues to address as well. One is how can involved patients hold their research partners to account, should that be necessary. Another thorny issue is should involved patients be remunerated in some way and how can this be done without conflicting with their independence.. Even if some of these issues cannot be answered they can be clearly defined and understood. Maybe some form of guidance can be offered. Contributions to the ongoing debate would always be accepted by interested journals.

Despite these complications the underlying rationale for patient involvement in research is simple. Research is a collaborative activity which should maximise quality by including representation from all those with a stake in it. The (over-used) patient mantra, ‘nothing about us without us’, probably applies here more than anywhere else.