Commissioning for change

An independent expert faculty has been set up to consider a vital new approach to commissioning. Mark Gilman, Paul Musgrave, Niamh Cullen, Terry Pearson and Chris Lee explain the context and the plan of action.

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Important progress in developing services for managing problematic opioid use has transformed the outcomes for people with serious drug problems. This has been achieved through a balance of innovation and careful allocation of resources.

Coming together as a group of commissioners with extensive experience, we needed to look at the pathway leading to these successes, to enable us to review the challenges facing us today. Our aim was to define questions that are central to the ongoing development of care.

This pathway to developing opioid dependence treatment may be divided into a series of stages, with defining characteristics:

Initial problems related to heroin
The 1950s saw increasing non-therapeutic opiate use, a trend which continued to grow throughout the 1960s. Early strategies to address dependence focused on prescribing opioid agonist medicines, with methadone a common and effective choice for many. Residential rehabilitation centres were set up following relatively unsuccessful results with outpatient treatment.

Exponential growth of the problem
Treatment approaches emerged in the 1970s. Prescribed methadone doses were often challenged and inpatient treatment duration limited in response to increased demand and financial pressures. Subsequent explosive growth of problem drug use in the 1980s and 1990s led to a resurgence in ‘maintenance prescribing’ and introduction of on-site dispensing facilities with supervised consumption. Treatment availability and coverage were lower than they are today, locally governed, commonly led by NHS specialists and funded to provide services in a relatively limited capacity.

Expansion in treatment
The National Treatment Agency was established in the 2000s with the aim of addressing the increasing problem of heroin use by improving treatment availability and reducing waiting times. More resources and organisational change gave rise to a competitive provider market, while new models of care were designed with an emphasis on performance management. Innovative thinking led to a step change in successful outcomes for people with problematic opioid use.

Evolution: a shift in focus
Recently the incidence of new heroin use has reduced. The existing cohort of approximately 150,000 people remains engaged with treatment services, with potentially greater needs related to comorbidity. The treatment system and method has evolved: policy has promoted focus on recovery-oriented and abstinence-based approaches, and concurrent mental health disorders have received greater attention. In parallel a step-down in resources has occurred in many locations, placing stronger focus on the need to achieve efficiency and cost-effectiveness in providing services.

Challenges today
While funding for treating opioid-related disorders is decreasing in many areas, there has not been an equivalent change in working practices to compensate. At the same time, drug-related deaths have been increasing in all four nations, linked to the ageing population and also unexplained factors. In many cases, services are essentially delivering less of the same, which is keeping the system ‘ticking over’. Looking to the future, it is relevant to consider if services are achieving the impact the population needs and deserves. And in parallel, how can we focus on innovation to maintain continuing improvement in outcomes?

There are a number of areas of innovation: use of digital technologies to provide psychological interventions, different forms of opioid agonist medications, and options to better address comorbidities such as hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection. It is important for commissioners to consider how innovation can play a role in continuing to improve care, while balancing budgets. There is already evidence of a new group of injectable opioid agonist therapies from various pharmaceutical companies which, if approved for prescription in UK, may allow treatment to be delivered with injections weekly or monthly.

Current spending with community pharmacies on medications, supervised consumption and dispensing is substantial. There may be opportunity to restructure services to allow direct supply of medications or on-site storage at clinics, allowing resources to be redirected. Understanding the balance between innovation and organisational change is key in this instance.

Evolving treatment options pose questions about the different ways in which therapy is tailored to the needs of the individual. In some cases, medications for opioid dependency are used chaotically as part of a wider cocktail of drugs; for others it is part of a long-term fluctuating but largely stable lifestyle, while for some it is a tool to help achieve recovery or abstinence. Do the services we commission build treatment systems with the ability to tailor interventions to the individual?

Questions may focus on whether all parts of treatment are employed to best effect – particularly psycho-social interventions. Do the treatment services we commission make the best use of the right kind of quality psychological and social therapies?

Considering future optimisation, commissioners should consider the readiness of the workforce providing care. Is the workforce appropriately skilled, and could a smaller number of competent staff be more efficient and effective? Is comprehensive training, supervision and support provided?

Collaboration is also key to future success. Do care pathways remain largely isolated from parts of the public sector that serve the same target audiences? Greater integration with mental health and housing services could help to reduce duplication.

Equally important is the approach to measuring performance. Do the outputs we measure as a part of the commissioning process tell us enough to improve health and wellbeing, while reducing offending and safeguarding fears?

Addressing questions such as these is key if continuous improvements in treatment and social outcomes are to be delivered while managing the balance of resources – an essential equation for commissioners in achieving continuing improvements in outcomes for all.

Key questions for commissioning

1. Planning based on individual needs
How can commissioning approaches assist providers in planning high quality support, by skilled staff, for groups with different aims, goals and characteristics? How can we improve outcomes while focusing resources effectively? We need to consider introducing case management functions and systematic commissioning for mutual aid.

2. New thinking and innovation
Consider how commissioning can build in new thinking to services which may reduce the need for resources directed to managing misuse and diversion risk, and ensure efficiency in medicines delivery – for example, by using innovative product formulations of opioid agonist therapy, which may not require resource intensive use of dispensing services or supervised consumption.

3. Integration and collaboration
Can commissioning ensure that specialist services better align with partner services (mental health, housing, social services, probation, police, justice, etc), to avoid duplication, create efficiency and improve continuity of care? Can we align competencies systematically so that the right skills are used most efficiently?

4. Using the right measures
How can commissioners ensure a complete holistic assessment of impact, including real world measures of health, wellbeing, crime, safeguarding and resource utilisation? Commissioners need to make decisions based on insights from a broad set of outcome measures.


This article represents the authors’ personal views.

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