A Utilitarian Twist? Performance Measurement in the English National Health Service

By McMaster, Robert | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2004 | Go to article overview

A Utilitarian Twist? Performance Measurement in the English National Health Service


McMaster, Robert, Journal of Economic Issues


The National Health Service (NHS) in England has been subject to ongoing structural change since the early 1990s. (1) Recently this has been accompanied by the increased recourse to performance management and evaluation systems, such as performance grading, systematic reviews, and clinical governance. This increased generation of information and evidence, combined with structural reform, has been hailed by Donald Light (2001) as affording the opportunity for the devolution of power from the organized medical profession and politicians to the wider community, particularly concerning decisions of rationing, prioritization, and funding. Light's optimistic scenario of community empowerment resonates with John Dewey's (1981) notions of "warranted knowledge" and the instrumental valuation principle, as part of the process of forming efficacious policy in the "Great Community."

Indeed, advocates of NHS reform argue that the increased generation of information will provide an objective assessment for gauging the performance of NHS bodies over a range of activities, thereby increasing transparency and accountability, as well as furnishing agents within the NHS with incentives to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of health care provision (Department of Health 2000, 2002).

This paper concentrates on an aspect of this recourse to performance evaluation: the performance grading of NHS bodies under the auspices of the performance assessment framework (PAF) and the performance rating system (PRS). The paper challenges the notion that performance assessment represents an objective evaluatory benchmark, resting as it does on primarily outcome measures. PAF/PRS demonstrates an inherently consequentialist orientation that invokes a particular utilitarian-grounded value-frame. Moreover, it is predicated on a tacit hierarchy of evidence that potentially masquerades a misleading scientific aura of "truth revelation." The object-subjective dual is queried: after all, the philosophy of medicine can never address the "is-ought gap," since the whole basis of medicine is normative (Tonelli 1998). Indeed, the institutional arrangements of the reformed NHS do not highlight mutuality as envisioned by Dewey (see also Keaney 2001), but instead quantifiable outcomes are de rigueur, relegating the intrinsic value of process and potentially engendering mechanical rigidity.

Performance Assessment in the English NHS

Information on performance is the sine qua non of the "new," reformed NHS. Given the historically ad hoc nature of information generation and its ineffectiveness in informing the distribution of resources in the NHS (Webster 1996) it would seem that the reforms, as its proponents claim, offer the potential for improvement in health care provision, both in terms of effectiveness and efficiency. Certainly the development of systems of assessment--the PAF/PRS--has led the government to claim that this represents a considerable advance in that performance and "best practice" are placed at the center of health care provision. (2)

Generally, health economists have cautiously welcomed increased information on (and measurement of) performance (see for instance, Hutton and Maynard 2000 and also Gravelle et al. 2003). Indeed, John Hutton and Alan Maynard (2000, 93) claimed,

   The circumstances [health reforms] are probably the most favourable
   ever created for the proponents of economic evaluation in health
   care to justify their activities.

Of course such a position stems directly from mainstream economists' preoccupation with information as a signaling mechanism for the efficient allocation of resources. Arguably the seminal contribution to this literature is Kenneth Arrow's analysis of information "as the negative measure of uncertainty" (1984, 138). For Arrow information essentially relates to statistical data, as he noted, "Statistics is ... the science of extracting information from a body of data" and "The statisticians' model of information seems appropriate for our [economists'] purposes" (138-9). …

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