Setting Stupid Targets for the NHS
The NHS has been damaged by deluded politicians and their targets strategy

Labour damaged the NHS by its target policy. The Coalition followed Andy Burnham’s proposal to cut the number of targets, but still set them to “name and shame”, which compounded the catastrophic impact of the Lansley bill. In their marketisation drive they have also continued to set ridiculous incentives for GPs and NHS staff, such as the recent £55 for every dementia diagnosis (a Tory pledge). This latter policy just demonstrates the Tories’ utter lack of trust in people, even in our great NHS, and their lies.

Their perception of people is that we are venal and will only respond to selfish incentives, even the most dedicated professionals. It also demonstrates the ignorance among politicians of all stripes of how organisations really work. The following discussion on the use of targets demonstrates this.
Targets and tick boxes

The previous Conservative government had set targets in the 1990s – for example, guaranteeing a maximum two-year wait for non-emergency surgery and reducing rates of death from specific diseases. But what was different about Labour’s approach to targets in the NHS (and across the public sector more generally) was the volume of targets and the vigour with which they were performance-managed from the centre – via Blair’s Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (operating according to the principle’s of ‘deliverology’).

The diagram of targets for A&E diagram below says it all.

Targets A&E graph

Figure – Targets set without regard to system capability or the nature of demand

The Labour government set an impossible target for A&E, treating it as though there would be no seasonal variation. Note, from 2005-2010, the failures occurred in the first quarter of the year, i.e. holidays and winter. What a surprise! But still marked up as a failure. This is mad management, setting up the NHS to fail (98%) 40% of the time. This is equivalent to the battle orders of the Somme ensuring maximum casualties by continuing to drive soldiers en masse into the German guns. Like the generals who perpetrated this infamy, the politicians sit well behind the firing lines, refusing to even look at the carnage caused by their policies.

The diagram says: from 2005 to 2010 politicians guaranteed failure in 9 quarters by their obsession with targets and scapegoated so-called failing hospitals!

Having seen the failure to achieve the 98% target the Coalition reset the targets to 95%. This despite the fact that the Tories pledged to scrap targets in 2007, highlighting a series of flaws with present targets, which Lansley himself said “distorted the way the NHS works”. (The Guardian, 22 January 2007)

Note that from 2010 to 2015 there would have been a 100% failure rate had the target remained at 98% (the dotted blue line on the diagram). This is the reality. It is also clear evidence that targets DO NOT WORK, i.e. things got worse! This would not have been a failure by the NHS staff! Just a very stupid policy.

For years the NHS had been punished by targets, for which Labour was largely responsible, especially Alan Milburn, who is now the champion of private health (see below). This was tremendously de-motivating and expensive, as it led to rework, readmissions, and lack of beds; all of which cause the nursing staff great stress and strain and wasted millions trying to do the impossible.

Not only did it cause a drop in morale, but it also caused “gaming” – intelligent professionals subverting the system to survive. Professor John Kay in his book Obliquity quotes the example of an eight-minute response target for ambulances which led to the vast majority of emergency calls getting just that, and almost none recorded as longer. The target changed the way the dispatchers allocated vehicles, presumably trumping the prioritisation of patient need.

To his credit, Andy Burnham, admitted that the target emphasis was a mistake; but insisted that initially it was the right strategy. It never was. It contravenes every quality improvement principle, beginning with understanding the real performance capability of the A&E system. They clearly never understood the principle, otherwise they would never have set the 98% target, i.e. understand the normal variation occurs, e.g. winter comes every year from November to February. (Note when the targets were missed, the 1st and 4th quarters above). If the politicians had any wisdom then, with the help of the staff, they could have transformed performance without causing anomalies and heartache.

Never set arbitrary targets, and never, ever, compound the error by using targets to punish or reward people.

Any improvements in results are achieved by understanding and changing the system, driven by the staff. Not by targets! The Royal Bolton Hospital in 2006 is a good example. The staff redesigned the entire process, which improved stabilisation and made access into theatre and discharge rates happen more quickly. The four key effects have been:

  • Reduced length of time it takes a patient to get to theatre from A&E by 38 per cent (2.4 days to 1.7 days)
  • Reduced paper work across the process by 42 per cent
  • Reduced total time patients spend in hospital by 32 per cent (34.6 days in 2004/05 to 23.5 days in 2005/06)
  • Significant reduction in mortality by at least one third. In 2004/05 327 patients were admitted with fractured hips and 75 died (22.9%). In the first half of 2005/06 there were 164 admissions of which 24 died (14.6%)
  • Improvement efforts in the NHS usually amount to gains of 3 or 4 per cent at the margins – these are improvements in the range of 30-40%.

But this is ignored by successive governments who insist on the command and control policies led by targets, while ignoring the cries of the NHS employees who were being damaged by the policy. Between 2001 and 2007 there were about 150 press features criticising, with evidence, the impact of targets. Also in the influential Berwick report in 2014, The Science of Improvement, the word “target” is not mentioned once!

Today, in 2018, the performance levels are even worse, for example so-called “bed-blocking”. So much for targets! The only other country that set as much store by targets in the workplace was the USSR, and look what happened to their economy!



  1. Hi John,
    I agree with your comments and at the same time keen to leverage all these day we have to improve the service am involved in which is delivering specialist medical expertise in medicine for older people outside the hospital and on an acute older persons unit. I have reached out to some information analysts with variable responses and have set up a meeting with a prof of computer science who is an expert in artificial intelligence/machine learning at our local university.I am hoping we can set up some prediction models and using Samantha’s SPC charts improve what we do in an intelligible/sensible way. Any suggestions or further signpostingbthat can help me gratefully received.
    Best wishes for the Xmas/new year
    Asan Akpan
    Consultant Geriatrician
    Aintree University Hospital NHS FT


    1. Asan
      Thanks for the reply and questions. The control charts can also be used predictively – if you bear in mind the exogenous factors like govt policy etc. Also, my experience is that the most useful device complementing the charts is flowcharting – not just for the process thus revealed, but also for building collaborative relationships that can then influence the directors.
      Will send the two examples shortly.
      Best wishes


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: