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Using clinical practice variations as a method for commissioners and clinicians to identify and prioritise opportunities for disinvestment in health care: a cross-sectional study, systematic reviews and qualitative study.


Southampton (UK): NIHR Journals Library; 2015 Apr.
Health Services and Delivery Research.



NHS expenditure has stagnated since the economic crisis of 2007, resulting in financial pressures. One response is for policy-makers to regulate use of existing health-care technologies and disinvest from inefficiently used health technologies. A key challenge to disinvestment is to identify existing health technologies with uncertain cost-effectiveness.


We aimed to explore if geographical variation in procedure rates is a marker of clinical uncertainty and might be used by local commissioners to identify procedures that are potential candidates for disinvestment. We also explore obstacles and solutions to local commissioners achieving disinvestment, and patient and clinician perspectives on regulating access to procedures.


We used Hospital Episode Statistics to measure geographical variation in procedure rates from 2007/8 to 2011/12. Expected procedure numbers for each primary care trust (PCT) were calculated adjusting for proxies of need. Random effects Poisson regression quantified the residual inter-PCT procedure rate variability. We benchmarked local procedure rates in two PCTs against national rates. We conducted rapid systematic reviews of two high-use procedures selected by the PCTs [carpal tunnel release (CTR) and laser capsulotomy], searching bibliographical databases to identify systematic reviews and randomised controlled trials (RCTs). We conducted non-participant overt observations of commissioning meetings and semistructured interviews with stakeholders about disinvestment in general and with clinicians and patients about one disinvestment case study. Transcripts were analysed thematically using constant comparison methods derived from grounded theory.


There was large inter-PCT variability in procedure rates for many common NHS procedures. Variation in procedure rates was highest where the diffusion or discontinuance was rapidly evolving and where substitute procedures were available, suggesting that variation is a proxy for clinical uncertainty about appropriate use. In both PCTs we identified procedures where high local use might represent an opportunity for disinvestment. However, there were barriers to achieving disinvestment in both procedure case studies. RCTs comparing CTR with conservative care indicated that surgery was clinically effective and cost-effective on average but provided limited evidence on patient subgroups to inform commissioning criteria and achieve savings. We found no RCTs of laser capsulotomy. The apparently high rate of capsulotomy was probably due to the coding inaccuracy; some savings might be achieved by greater use of outpatient procedures. Commissioning meetings were dominated by new funding requests. Benchmarking did not appear to be routinely carried out because of capacity issues and concerns about data reliability. Perceived barriers to disinvestment included lack of collaboration, central support and tools for disinvestment. Clinicians felt threshold criteria had little impact on their practice and that prior approval systems would not be cost-effective. Most patients were unaware of rationing.


Policy-makers could use geographical variation as a starting point to identify procedures where health technology reassessment or RCTs might be needed to inform policy. Commissioners can use benchmarking to identify procedures with high local use, possibly indicating overtreatment. However, coding inconsistency and limited evidence are major barriers to achieving disinvestment through benchmarking. Increased central support for commissioners to tackle disinvestment is needed, including tools, accurate data and relevant evidence. Early engagement with patients and clinicians is essential for successful local disinvestment.


The National Institute for Health Research Health Services and Delivery Research programme.

Copyright © Queen’s Printer and Controller of HMSO 2015. This work was produced by Hollingworth et al. under the terms of a commissioning contract issued by the Secretary of State for Health. This issue may be freely reproduced for the purposes of private research and study and extracts (or indeed, the full report) may be included in professional journals provided that suitable acknowledgement is made and the reproduction is not associated with any form of advertising. Applications for commercial reproduction should be addressed to: NIHR Journals Library, National Institute for Health Research, Evaluation, Trials and Studies Coordinating Centre, Alpha House, University of Southampton Science Park, Southampton SO16 7NS, UK.

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