Integrating Health and Social Care Services in NHS England


Integrating Health and Social Care Services in NHS England

by Stirrat, GM1, Blockley D I2, Alexander K3, Phillips S4

Systems thinking helps us identify interconnected patterns so that we can anticipate and adapt to complex challenges.

1 Emeritus Professor of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, University of Bristol, UK.

2 Emeritus Professor of Civil Engineering, University of Bristol.

3 GP & Chair Bristol North and West Locality Leadership Group at Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire CCG, UK.

4 Alliance Director  (Interim)| Lambeth Living Well Network Alliance


A recent UK Government draft Heath White Paper follows the NHS England long term plan when it states that NHS England requires “a new framework that builds on changes already being made as well as building in the flexibility to support the system to tackle challenges of the future”. At present the structure of Health and Social Care Services UK reporting to Government seems unhelpfully complex and opaque. The purpose of this paper is to contribute to the building of a new framework by developing our previous suggestions that identifying and using ‘systemic processes’ can help facilitate the integration of England’s Health and Social Care services. We highlight some of the critical issues that are currently hindering integration and set out a new way of understanding the structure of NHS England through an ‘inside-out’ analysis of systemic processes. We describe and give three examples of existing systemic processes as ‘Consulting a patient’, ‘Enhancing a Single point of access’ -to mental health services and ‘Delivering health and social care services England’. Rethinking the interactions between existing organisations could arguably bring considerable benefits including cost savings, better co-ordination, less ‘admin’ stress on staff at the ‘coal face’ and provide more organisational adaptability in an uncertain future. Ultimately our suggestions are aimed at helping people to deliver better patient care – the impelling purpose of the NHS.


The purpose of this paper is to develop our suggestions made previously [4] that identifying and using ‘systemic processes’ can significantly facilitate the integration of NHS England Health and Social Care services. Specifically, our objectives are to:

  1. highlight some of the critical issues that are currently hindering integration,
  2. set out a new way of understanding the structure of NHS England and the way it works through an ‘inside-out’ analysis of systemic processes,
  3. describe and give examples of some NHS systemic processes,
  4. outline a strategy for identifying and improving them across the entire health and care community,
  5. reflect on the possible improved outcomes.

Issues that hinder integration

In a previous report [4] we have highlighted that the NHS is complex set of organizations which, for the most part, work quite well despite a myriad of sub systems. We noted that other authors have also referred to this complexity [5, 6, 7, 8] and, for example Powell [7] says “The leadership of the NHS seems fractured……a system under siege where success isn’t celebrated but failure is catastrophised”. We need “to build the confidence of the people who hold the problem.” Attempts to explain the complex systems are necessarily partial [9, 10, 11]. Good people can make a poor system work well but when pressures overwhelm them failure can be catastrophic [12].

In [4] we asked what are the incentives that will make integration work? Why should the many providers take responsibility for the total care of the whole population for probably less resource – when they have very little control over all the parts?

The pandemic has demonstrated to all that everyone in the NHS shares a strong common purpose of ‘caring for our patients’. But does that translate into more detailed shared purposes at the various levels of the sub-systems? We see at least 6 groups of issues that currently hinder integration.

  1. Resources – where adequate resources do not follow activity without waste through unforeseen issues. For example, the cost of drugs from commercial pharmacies (and thus to the NHS overall) is considerably greater than the same drugs from hospital pharmacies Hospitals may initiate medication for a patient for which they have a particular financial deal, but the primary carers are not part of the deal and the medication may become very expensive for them. When payment models do not encourage closer working around the needs of patients by sharing ‘pain and gain’ in an agreed manner then integration will be harder to achieve.
  2. Organisations – the various parties to Integrated Care have to be aware that their potential partners may be fearful of extra work and responsibility being ‘dumped’ onto them. Sometimes, for example, individual GPs may be reluctant to hold challenging risks that hospital staff, with their more collective responsibility, may not be exposed to. If a patient dies during hospital treatment after a late diagnosis of bowel cancer caused at least partly through unintended delays (in the systems and perhaps also by the behaviour of the patient) the GP may find himself/herself in the spotlight of blame by relatives, for not diagnosing quickly enough. Co-operating organisations in the public and private sectors may have different bureaucratic constraints and work to different priorities and time scales as they attempt to adjust with agility to rapid changes. Organisational culture (in simple terms, the way that things are done – including the unwritten rules that influence behaviour and attitudes) can often dominate strategic aims. Some of the factors that influence culture include leadership, deployment of resources, clarity of structure and processes, values and traditions. Success rests on leadership that overcomes professional silos and tribalism with good IT and access to targeted data – to harmonise strategy and culture.
  3. Targets that are set top down without adequate consultation can lead to perverse behaviour. For example, waiting list targets resulted in requests for investigations and letters of referral being hidden from the doctors so that the patient was not put on an already “over target” waiting list. During the pandemic urgent cases were delayed because some doctors were not permitted to see the requests. Doctors and other staff were being told to use particular “pathways” and follow “guidelines”. Because the hospitals will not defend the staff if they stray from the guidelines then they effectively become directives. This leads to ossification of thought and procedure.
  4. Leadership – top-down control of the NHS is seen by many to be inefficient and has hindered much of its work – particularly during the pandemic. Nevertheless, it can be effective when the main task is relatively simple, for example immunisation (once all the vaccine is available). However, diagnosis and treatment processes for individual patients are not simple – they are beyond the abilities of top-down management to control. Leadership cannot come from managers who do not understand or who are not qualified to do the job. The old system of consultant firms in the hospitals worked because the person in charge knew what they were doing. Likewise, the sisters on the wards and the matron in the hospital were a good combination of knowledge and experience. During the pandemic doctors in the NHS were told not to use various drugs that they might have wished to repurpose – such as ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine and dexamethasone. Until double blind trials had been undertaken these drugs were forbidden from use. This was seen by many as an unhelpful interruption of clinical freedom with consequent harm to patients.
  5. Feedback and Learning – a consequence of top-down control is that staff are not encouraged to put their ideas forward. Some live-in-fear of their jobs if they blow the whistle to anybody other than their line manager – the very person that they often wish to report. Organisational learning requires more freedom of expression.
  6. Integrating at all levels – there is little evidence of an equivalent attention to ‘joining-up’ the proliferation of higher level non-local and fragmented organisations reporting to or sponsored by the DHSC. The drive for integration ‘at the coal face’ does not appear to be reflected at the top of the NHS. There seems to be no unifying concept around which the integration can coalesce nationally. Without that there is a significant risk of regional ad hoc solutions that may not join-up across geographical/national boundaries.

Systemic Processes

In [4] we suggested that the entirety of the health and social care system may be better understood by identifying its existing ‘systemic processes’. The purpose would be to evolve a more ‘joined-up’, less fractured and more integrated ‘whole’ across regional boundaries.

A systemic process [17] is not a sequence of events as in a flow chart [14]. Neither it is simply a series of actions towards an end. Rather it is a reconceptualization of process as a potential that drives a flow of change – just as the volts of a battery drive an electrical current or water pressure drives the flow of water. A systemic process captures why and what people actually do and how change happens.

The primary innovative characteristic of systemic processes is that they are structurally self-similar – just like the pieces of a jigsaw. Process ‘pieces’ form clusters and clusters of clusters which we can think of as layers of parts of the whole. The processes are, of course unlike a jigsaw, dynamic and ever changing. Systemic ‘jigsaw’ processes capture that change. Change derives from a potential that drives a flow (or dually from flow that creates potential). In classical physical systems potential is electromagnetic or gravitational and flow is movement. For example, voltage, current and velocity, force. In human affairs the potential is contained in answers to questions ‘why’ – purpose, aims and objectives. The change is contained in answers to questions ‘who, what, where, when’. The transformation of the flow from one ‘state of affairs’ to another is contained in answers to questions ‘how’. The aim is to model the right information ‘what’ (data as performance indicators, success criteria and shared care records), for the right reasons ‘why’ (purpose), to the right person or organisation ‘who’ (role, stakeholder), in the right way ‘where’ (context) and at the right time ‘when’.

Systemic processes are wholes and parts at the same time. They are ‘being things’ that change through natural forces – living or inanimate. You and I are ‘being’ wholes as individuals and yet also parts of family and social groups. As individuals ‘wholes’ we are made of parts such as our muscular skeleton structure and digestive systems. We are as we are because the parts collaborate to form the whole – in other words we show ‘emergent’ characteristics [15]. We see the NHS as an ecology of interdependent relations and interactions the behaviour and characteristics of which emerge from interactions between systemic processes – just as a whole jigsaw picture emerges from the interlocking pieces of a jigsaw

The successful delivery of a systemic process derives from the success of sets of processes in the adjacent layers. An important part of the identification of lower sub-system processes is that their successes are jointly necessary and sufficient for the process above – there is an explicit logical relationship connecting defined success, in all of its manifestations, at every level. It is also important to note that the layers are not hierarchical power structures. Rather they are levels of abstraction from setting policy down to detailed implementation. The attributes of each systemic process can be grouped under the headings of why, how, who, what, where and when. At each level the attributes can be identified (by multiple players) in a common format. These can then be implemented on a secure intranet to be accessed by those given authority to do so. Every process should have one ‘process owner’ responsible for leading the players involved in that process to detect and monitor progress, to identify potential unintended consequences and agree the required actions to steer the process to success. Success is defined as meeting purpose/aims/objectives and avoiding failure.

Practically we find it helpful to name a systemic process using the present participle or ‘ing’ form. For example, ‘Doing something’ – ‘Testing a blood sample’ or ‘Diagnosing a condition’. During the ‘piecing together’ or the ‘building of clusters’ systemic processes, changes and improvements will suggest themselves. For example, points of strategic dissonance may become apparent. This happens when an organisation hangs on to the old ways of doing things for too long because of a disconnect between actions and intent or purpose at any given level. For more on the details of this approach see [16, 17] 

A Possible Strategy

In [4] we suggest that the key to driving change should be ‘influencing from the bottom up’. Top-down centralisation has proven ineffective [1]. Ham [18] writes ‘The overcentralised management of the pandemic was undoubtedly a factor in the failure to learn more effectively. Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, and a small number of Cabinet members were visible in their leadership and appeared reluctant to draw on the expertise and intelligence of the devolved administrations, regional, and local government leaders. Opportunities for learning were lost, contributing to the mistakes that were made’. Policy decisions for change have to make sense to those ‘on the front line’ if they are to respond positively. That response is also conditional on the need for change to evolve up and down through the entire system. Given that policy makers and staff need to see how their decisions spread or percolate through the organisation we now propose that rather than describing the change process as ‘bottom-up’ we should regard it as being ‘inside-out’. By that we mean that change should be initiated at all levels of the system. The first stage of that change process is to identify the systemic processes at that level. Then by discussing the overlaps and interactions with ‘neighbouring’ systemic processes the people involved (led by the process owners) can adjust or adapt the systemic processes to fit. It is as if we are reshaping our jigsaw pieces so that they fit and interlock. These kinds of adapting change processes would not be ‘one-off’ and static. Rather they are dynamic systemic learningprocesses and an integral part of an ongoing improvement model. Organisational adaptability through feedback and learning is a key to success as successful change is shared and spreads out from many different points across the clusters to the whole organisation.

A strategy such as this will require high level policy makers and those allocating resources to also adapt and integrate. That can be difficult for political leaders who may be criticised by media and public alike for changing their policies. There are two solutions to this dilemma. One is to declare that running the NHS is no longer a political matter. The other is to take the opportunity given to us by the pandemic to initiate a different approach to openness to change when faced with a future full of uncertainty – with many unknown unknowns. This would require considerable political skill to persuade everyone in an accountable democratic society that certainty is simply no longer available in complex systems. Changing one’s mind is currently seen as a weakness and not, as it should be, a strength when fully justified by dependable evidence. Leaders will need to learn and adapt to facilitate the changes that will incentivise all those affected by their decisions to work differently. The strategy has also to apply to the totality of health and social care services of the organisations in and related to NHS England, including local authority social care and private companies.

In summary we suggest that the strategy to implement the laudable aims set out in the WP [1] should be to understand and motivate – not by imposing top-down targets but by ‘inside-out’ growing of clusters of understanding with commensurate motivation to ‘join up processes at multiple points and levels whether at the top, middle or on the front line.

Three Examples

We noted in [4] that the organisations reporting to the DHSC seem to be contributing to seven high level systemic processes. They are Commissioning Care, Providing Care, Supplying, Regulating, Advising, Educating and Researching. They will form our third example – see below. First, we present two lower level examples with a little detail (but still incomplete for space reasons) for illustration.

The method (a how question/attribute) we use to identify systemic processes begins with setting down, as a Mind Map [13] what people actually do. Figure 1a represents the systemic process of a GP ‘Consulting with a Patient’. Necessarily, as we have said, the diagram is incomplete. However, the main sub-processes shown are ‘Reviewing the patient record’, ‘Putting patient at ease’, ‘Diagnosing’ and ‘Managing further care’. The test for deciding on the nature of the sub-processes is to ask the question: ‘Would the successes of the sub-processes be jointly necessary and sufficient for the success of the process? Of course, each of these sub-processes has sub-sub-processes as shown. However, the sub -processes are self-similar in structure – they are each wholes and parts at the same time – which is why some people call them holons [16, 17]. A holon sub-process of ‘Diagnosing’ is ‘Requesting tests’ and a holon sub-process of that in turn is ‘Testing blood’ as highlighted in yellow. Each systemic process holon has a set of attributes gathered under the headings of why, how, who, what, where and when. In Figure 1a these are given in an abbreviated form. In a fully implemented Mind Map the attribute descriptions could be fuller and hold hypertext links to documents held on an intranet. For example, the (who) patient attribute could link to a Share Care Record or similar patient file. The {who) GP attribute could link to a GP Practice website of that GP. A link from the why attribute could link to present or previous symptoms. The Figure cannot show all attributes for all processes even as abbreviated. A further example shown in the diagram is that of ‘Prescribing’ with possible attributes also as shown. Figure 1b is a continuation of Figure 1a for the systemic process of

‘Testing Blood’. Subprocesses of ‘Making an appointment’, ‘Checking in’ etc. are shown again with abbreviated attributes. Of course, these processes are familiar and normally

well managed by GPs which is why we have given them as illustrative examples that relate to something familar.

Figure 2a is less familiar and more challenging. It shows an ongoing adjustment of systemic processes in the integrated Alliance Network of the fourth author. The process is ‘Enabling a Single Point of Access’ for mental health patients. Currently there are multiple points of access and these need to be integrated.

The processes highlighted in yellow of ‘Improving web access’ and Redesigning forms’ and Enhancing Teams are shown in Figure 2b. Clearly there are more processes and attributes to identify – for example ‘Consulting all involved’ and Checking fitness for purpose. Again a full description is not possible in this paper and work is ongoing.

A third example shown in Figure 3a is even more challenging. It is the top-level process of ‘Delivering Health and Social Care England’ and has the 7 sub-processes identified at the head of this section and in [4]. Sub-processes included are ‘Determining policy, ‘Allocating Resources’ and Integrating’ (highlighted in yellow). These are continued in Figure 3b together with ‘Regulating’, and ‘Advising’. Again, in each case we identify the attributes shown in abbreviated form for only some of the processes.

Clearly it is impossible here to capture the full richness of the processes and their attributes. That task can be made viable through adequate software operated by multiple players who ‘own’ each individual systemic process on multiple servers connected by an intranet. In the first instance only a simple mind Mapping tool is required but a full implementation will require adequate software with built in permissions and safeguards.

Improving Outcomes

The approach described could:

  1. provide an overview of the whole organisational structure that
  2. everyone can understand and appreciate which can be traced right down from the top level policy making down to the detailed ‘caring for patient’ processes;
  3. allow people to identify overlaps and interdependencies. For example, advisory organisations could possibly be streamlined to co-ordinate advice and avoid incongruity and inconsistency;
  4. enable caring for the sick, caring for public health and the vulnerable be under one ‘umbrella’ to avoid inconsistencies of policy over the longer time scales than politicians are typically in post;
  5. enable a common data structure for the why, how, who, what, where and when attributes of each systemic process – important to avoid different groups using different data structures that cannot easily be shared and for data exchange via an intranet, with appropriate permissions to sensitive data, and the monitoring of progress and interventions to steer processes towards success;
  6. enable all those involved in delivering success for the NHS to identify how the necessary and sufficient conditions for the success of systemic processes at the ‘coal face’ feedback into success and deficiencies at higher policy levels;
  7. :;permit us to clarify; 
    • pathways of precise terms of delegation and accountability – in particular;
    • how decision makers at all layers of the system delegate responsibilities down through the layers of processes – for example from government to NHS England and others to workers at the ‘coal face’ and ultimately to the patients;
    • how decision makers at all layers of the system are accountable up through the layers – for example from hospital ward care to Trust Boards, CCGs, NHS England and to government, parliament and ultimately to the public;
    • remove, reduce or ameliorate inconsistencies between policy and practice;
    • improve adaptability of response to unintended consequences and future unknowns such as pandemics and potential impacts from climate change.


  1. The structure of Health and Social Care Services UK reporting to Government seems unhelpfully complex and opaque. We suggest a rationalisation using a ‘systems thinking bottom-up’ approach would be more likely to succeed than yet another top-down reorganisation.
  2. Rethinking the interactions between existing organisations around ‘systemic processes’ could arguably bring considerable benefits including cost savings, better co-ordination, less ‘admin’ stress on staff at the ‘coal face’ and provide more organisational adaptability in an uncertain future. 
  3. Ultimately ‘systemic processes’ could help everyone deliver better patient care because that is the impelling purpose of the NHS.


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  18. Ham C. The UK’s poor record on covid-19 is a failure of policy learning, (2021) The BMJ Opinion Blog, Jan 26th See (accessed Feb 2021)

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