The Care Quality Commission (CQC) was formed in 2009 to replace three separate inspection bodies: the Healthcare Commission, the Commission for Social Care Inspection and the Mental Health Act Commission. Since October 2010 all providers of healthcare and social care, whether in the public or private sector, have had to register with the CQC – which now regulates more than 21,000 providers.
This massive registration task was divided into phases: the Commission registered NHS secondary care providers, then re-registered adult social care and independent healthcare providers, then registered primary dental care and independent ambulance providers. Its next challenge is to register all GP practices. Most importantly, it will need to continue monitoring the quality and safety of all these providers’ services.
The CQC’s declared purpose is to eliminate poor quality care, defend patients’ rights and ensure that care is centred on people’s needs. Initially it adopted a ‘risk-based’ strategy of using evidence of potential danger to determine the frequency of inspections. In 2011/12 it shifted to annual inspection of all care providers. Next year, however, it will revert to a ‘riskbased’ approach – as well as participating in local Quality Surveillance Groups, alongside CCGs and local Healthwatch.
These changes follow a year in which the CQC has faced criticism of its leadership and its overall performance. The Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust enquiry led to criticism (for different reasons) of its Chief Executive, Cynthia Bower, and its Chair, Dame Jo Williams. The recent scandal of sustained patient abuse at Winterbourne View Care Home led the CQC to be accused of failing to conduct regular inspections and respond to ‘whistleblowers’.
In March a Commons Public Accounts Committee concluded that the CQC had “a long way to go” before it could be considered an effective regulator. The recent resignations of Bower and Williams have reduced the shadow over the leadership. The new CQC Chief Executive, David Behan, has a background in social care rather than healthcare. But can the problems of regulating provider quality in the new health and social care system be solved by such changes, or are they systemic issues beyond the scope of the CQC?
In safe hands
The CQC’s annual report for 2010/11 noted that by April 2010 it had licensed all 378 NHS provider trusts, and had required 22 trusts to take specific actions to improve their services. By October 2010 it had re-registered 12,000 adult social care and independent health providers, and had required almost 1,000 care homes to put in place qualified managers. By July 2011 it had registered 18,000 dental care and independent ambulance providers. The inclusion of primary medical services will add 8,000 providers to the list.
Each provider is accountable for each separate ‘regulated activity’ it provides, and must show that the service meets acceptable standards of quality and safety. CQC standards cover these areas:
- Informing patients and involving them in decisions about their care.
- Personalised care, treatment and support.
- Safeguarding and safety of the care environment.
- Suitably qualified and capable management and staff .
- Risk management and incident reporting.
A further responsibility of the CQC is to respond to complaints about services – and in particular, to provide a safe and responsive port of call for ‘whistleblowers’: care provider staff who report failings in quality or safety.
Winter in social care
Financial pressure was a feature of the CQC’s role from the outset. Its initial budget was 30% less than the combined budget of the three organisations it had replaced. The Labour Government set a ‘light-touch’ agenda for inspection: unless there was evidence of risk, providers would be left uninspected for
up to two years.
The coalition Government’s review of arm’s length bodies in July 2010 reinforced the CQC’s role as regulator for health and social care. However, it was not exempt from the general requirement that the NHS ‘do more with less’. Its annual budget for 2010/11 was set at £16.4m – £10m less than it had told the DH it needed to cope with the combined task of registering and inspection.
As a result, the number of inspections carried out by the CQC fell by 70%. Concern over its performance came to a head in the Winterbourne View scandal, where action to stop the mistreatment of learning-disabled patients in a care home run by private firm Castlebeck had been unacceptably slow. The regulator had failed to act on information from a ‘whistleblower’, and only a BBC Panorama report had brought the abuses to public attention.
In the aftermath of the scandal, a Health Select Committee report accused the CQC of devoting too much of its resources to registration, a sign of “distorted priorities”. However, Kings Fund Director of Policy Anna Dixon observed: “It is no good preaching the virtues of light touch regulation, and then blaming the regulator for not taking a more interventionist approach when problems emerge.”
The later Commons Public Accounts Committee report highlighted several CQC failings: lack of inspections,
failure to fill key vacancies in its inspection team, and the decision to scrap a helpline for whistleblowers. The committee said the CQC risked becoming a mere “postbox” for complaints.
Jo Williams described the Winterbourne View case as a “watershed moment” for the CQC, triggering its abandonment of the ‘light touch’ approach. The regulator asked for – and got – a £10m increase in its budget for 2012/13 to increase its number of inspectors by 15%, enabling it to adopt a policy of inspecting each provider at least once a year.
Crisis of leadership
The issues affecting the CQC leadership reflect some of the conflicts of interest that can arise for care regulators. The Mid Staffordshire inquiry – the greatest hospital safety scandal in the NHS’s history – concerned events that took place before the formation of the CQC. However, Cynthia Bower was head of the West Midlands SHA at that time, and the inquiry was critical of her role.
The Healthcare Commission (HCC) had warned the SHA about the unusually high mortality rate at Stafford General Hospital. According to the Guardian, Bower responded by commissioning a known critic of the HCC at Birmingham University to write a report on the HCC’s methodology. When the CQC was formed, Bower disbanded the HCC’s inspection team.
The Mid Staffs inquiry led to severe damage within the CQC. Senior operations analyst Rona Bryce claimed the testimony of CQC Board members was “aspirational”. Board member Kay Sheldon contacted the enquiry to voice concerns she said she had raised internally without result. Dame Jo Williams then asked the Health Secretary to dismiss Sheldon, but he declined. Williams also commissioned a third-party investigation of Sheldon’s mental health.
The way forward
David Behan, who took over as CQC Chief Executive in July 2012, had been Director General of Social Care at the DH since 2006. His appointment suggests a shift towards greater focus on social care regulation. The DH has set three core goals for the CQC going forward: to become more strategic in its approach and define quality more clearly in terms of outcomes; to make its Board stronger and more accountable; and to make the regulatory process more systematic and proportionate to risk.
The reversion to a risk-based approach is clearly driven by the cost-cutting agenda. However, Behan promises a “more ambitious” use of performance data to highlight success as well as failure, helping to drive widespread improvements in care. He also plans a “differentiated regulation” of health, mental health and social care providers.
In addition, from April 2013 the CQC will work alongside CCGs and local Healthwatch to develop a network of local and regional Quality Surveillance Groups. According to the NHS Commissioning Board, this system will “act as a virtual team” across health and social care, and will “need to manage itself ” without governance. It will use a ‘risk summit’ model to deal with problems, but who takes primary responsibility will depend on the circumstances.
These changes show the CQC becoming more devolved, but also more able to assist the integration of health and social care. However, as providers become more diverse while funding both for inspection and for care becomes steadily tighter, the future is unlikely to be problem-free for the regulator. The CQC will need to continue walking a tightrope between a ‘light touch’ agenda and urgent reactions to healthcare disasters – its success will depend primarily on getting better at it.