Commissioning healthcare for people with long term conditions: The persistence of relational contracting in England's NHS quasi-market
Background: Since 1991, there has been a series of reforms of the English National Health Service (NHS) entailing an increasing separation between the commissioners of services and a widening range of public and independent sector providers able to compete for contracts to provide services to NHS patients. We examine the extent to which local commissioners had adopted a market-oriented (transactional) model of commissioning of care for people with long term conditions several years into the latest period of market-oriented reform. The paper also considers the factors that may have inhibited or supported market-oriented behaviour, including the presence of conditions conducive to a health care quasi-market. Methods. We studied the commissioning of services for people with three long term conditions - diabetes, stroke and dementia - in three English primary care trust (PCT) areas over two years (2010-12). We took a broadly ethnographic approach to understanding the day-to-day practice of commissioning. Data were collected through interviews, observation of meetings and from documents. Results: In contrast to a transactional, market-related approach organised around commissioner choice of provider and associated contracting, commissioning was largely relational, based on trust and collaboration with incumbent providers. There was limited sign of commissioners significantly challenging providers, changing providers, or decommissioning services. In none of the service areas were all the conditions for a well functioning quasi-market in health care in place. Choice of provider was generally absent or limited; information on demand and resource requirements was highly imperfect; motivations were complex; and transaction costs uncertain, but likely to be high. It was difficult to divide care into neat units for contracting purposes. As a result, it is scarcely surprising that commissioning practice in relation to all six commissioning developments was dominated by a relational approach. Conclusions: Our findings challenge the notion of a strict separation of commissioners and providers, and instead demonstrate the adaptive persistence of relational commissioning based on continuity of provision, trust and interdependence between commissioners and providers, at least for services for people with long-term conditions. © 2013 Porter et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.