Vertical integration of primary care practices with acute hospitals in England and Wales: why, how and so what? Findings from a qualitative, rapid evaluation
Sidhu M., Pollard J., Sussex J.
ObjectivesTo understand the rationale, implementation and early impact of vertical integration between primary care medical practices and the organisations running acute hospitals in the National Health Service in England and Wales.Design and settingA qualitative, cross-comparative case study evaluation at two sites in England and one in Wales, consisting of interviews with stakeholders at the sites, alongside observations of strategic meetings and analysis of key documents.ResultsWe interviewed 52 stakeholders across the three sites in the second half of 2019 and observed four meetings from late 2019 to early 2020 (further observation was prevented by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic). The single most important driver of vertical integration was found to be to maintain primary care local to where patients live and thereby manage demand pressure on acute hospital services, especially emergency care. The opportunities created by maintaining local primary care providers—to develop patient services in primary care settings and better integrate them with secondary care—were exploited to differing degrees across the sites. There were notable differences between sites in operational and management arrangements, and in organisational and clinical integration. Closer organisational integration was attributed to previous good relationships between primary and secondary care locally, and to historical planning and preparation towards integrated working across the local health economy. The net impact of vertical integration on health system costs is argued by local stakeholders to be beneficial.ConclusionsVertical integration is a valuable option when primary care practices are at risk of closing, and may be a route to better integration of patient care. But it is not the only route and vertical integration is not attractive to all primary care physicians. A future evaluation of vertical integration is intended; of patients’ experience and of the impact on secondary care service utilisation.