Peter Lapsley opens up with closing down

Peter Lapsley I make no apology for beginning with a sad but salutary tale.

Governments are charged with spending their health budgets wisely and to best advantage. The prevention of illness – call it “health education” – is a very wise way in which to spend some of the money; far better both for the public and for the NHS that people should be prevented from becoming ill than that they should eventually have to be treated for preventable illnesses.

It is also far more cost effective to produce high quality health education materials centrally, for local distribution, than locally. Which is why it was with such a sense of sadness that I attended the final board meeting of the DPP (Developing Patient Partnerships) on 8 January this year.

The DPP was a charity founded in the late 1990s. A joint initiative by the British Medical Association (BMA) and the Department of Health (DH), its purpose was to provide high quality health educational information for the public, to encourage better communication between patients and healthcare professionals, to promote the responsible use of NHS services, and to offer practical advice on self medication.

Funded largely by the DH, it quickly became a very efficient organisation, with never more than half a dozen staff, producing health education materials on a wide range of subjects, the quality of which was consistently and widely acclaimed by frontline health services and by the DH. The intention was that the DPP should eventually become self sufficient by selling its materials to primary care trusts (PCTs). That never really happened, chiefly because, although they all said they welcomed them, too few PCTs were able to identify suitable budgets from which to pay for the booklets, leaflets, and podcasts the DPP produced.

Eventually, early last year, in the middle of one of its periodic financial crises, the DH withdrew its quite modest financial support, forcing the DPP’s closure. The staff have been made redundant, the office in BMA House has been given up and the website has been taken off-line. The board has sought to mitigate the closure by making gifts of the residual funds and materials to other charities with comparable aims, although the search for suitable candidates produced none with a range of activities as varied as the DPP’s.

With health education said to be high on the government’s agenda and with no other organisation offering a similarly comprehensive health education service, it seems bizarre that the DPP’s professionalism, resources and expertise should have been squandered so lightly. This is not a party political whinge; the officials who made the decisions, or their like-minded successors, will still be in post after the next general election, and experience shows government ministers of all hues to be susceptible to occasional financial panic. But what a tragic waste.

Peter Lapsley is patient editor of the BMJ and a lay member of the BMJ’s Ethics Committee. He was previously chief executive of the Skin Care Campaign, a Trustee of the Long-Term Conditions Alliance (now National Voices) – a Trustee of the DPP (Developing Patient Partnerships) and member of the Royal College of Physicians Patient & Carer Network.