They’re an important device to measure performance, champion excellence – and identify key areas which require urgent improvement. In terms of the National Health Service, it was the imposition of targets which did, in fact, help to counter the spread of dangerous infections like MRSA. Yet, conversely, they’re now overlooked by Ministers when it comes to A&E waiting times.
This is the background to The Yorkshire Post’s revelations that NHS hospital trusts in this region had £90m of funding withheld in the last financial year because of poor performance. Although the money does stay within the health sector and is reallocated, it is effectively a fine at a time when all hospital staff from consultants to cleaners have been doing their very best to meet unprecedented demand for care because of a burgeoning population.
Such an approach, however, appears to do little to tackle the specific causes of under-performance. Indeed, it will make it harder for some NHS trusts to meet key objectives for the benefit of their patients – just think how many extra doctors, nurses and other medical staff could be recruited if hospitals, already in debt, still had this money at their disposal?
Of course, there are times when the NHS does not help itself. Its management structure is convoluted and profligate. There are also times when it is let down by patients who miss appointments – or show insufficient regard for their personal health. However there’s no doubting the professionalism, and expertise, of frontline medical workers. They are already having to contend with serious staff shortages because insufficient doctors and nurses are being trained. Yet these are the people who will suffer, and be penalised, unless this self-defeating use of targets is quickly remedied.