Catherine Foot: Can the Care Quality Commission live up to expectations?

catherine_footThis week marks one year since Robert Francis published his second report into failures of care at Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust.

Mid Staffs director of quality and patient experience, Julie Hendry, gave a moving presentation at a conference at the King’s Fund in November summarising the journey that the trust have been on since 2009, and the progress they have made and continue to make.

But what developments have there been more broadly across the system?

One year is barely long enough to achieve culture change. But locally, both in response to the first Francis report and more recently, there are countless examples of improvements in how boards monitor and manage quality, how care for frail older people is organised in hospitals, and how leaders listen to and involve patients. There are also organisations continuing to struggle to focus on quality—the picture is inevitably mixed. Nationally, the final full government response to Francis balanced commitments to strengthen how quality is monitored with initiatives to help teams and organisations improve safety and support staff wellbeing.

One of the most high profile actions at a national level, though, has been the overhaul of the Care Quality Commission (CQC) and the introduction of its new inspection and surveillance processes.

Quality regulation has an important role to play in the system, and many of the developments under way at CQC, such as the move to specialist inspection teams and the balance of inspection and data surveillance, reflects the evidence about what works and builds on the experiences of CQC’s predecessors (which were neatly analysed in Prof Gwyn Bevan’s chapter on regulation in our 2011 book evaluating Labour’s reforms). But regulation is just one element in the whole architecture of roles and responsibilities for assuring and improving quality in the system.

Increasingly in recent months, I have heard worrying statements that hint at an underlying belief that CQC will assure quality in the NHS—that Mike’s army will prevent a catastrophe like Mid Staffs ever happening again.

The recent health select committee report into the CQC warned that if it “cannot pre-empt high-profile failings” it will not be “credible” and that it “must identify problems and trigger inspections before they become widely publicised by the media.” Early identification of problems before they become serious is of course the goal we want to achieve, but no attempt at proportionate risk based regulation will ever get this perfectly right every time.

Even the CQC’s own website, perhaps understandably for simplicity’s sake, claims: “We make sure hospitals, care homes, dental and GP surgeries, and all other care services in England provide people with safe, effective, compassionate, and high quality care.”

But regulators cannot assure quality—it can only ever be the third line of defence against poor care, as we argued in our paper on quality assurance. The first line of defence is frontline staff. These are the people who deliver care, who, when properly empowered and supported, can act to improve quality and to address problems. The second line of defence is the leaders and boards of organisations. And third are the national bodies in the quality system, of which CQC is one. To require the CQC to guarantee high quality care at all times in all places risks undermining  local responsibility for the quality of care as well as establishing an unreal expectation over what it can achieve

This is not to argue that we should accept regulatory failure. CQC should be no less held to account than any other part of the system—it is essential that it continues to develop, test, and refine the most effective possible mix of regulatory activities to fulfil its role. But let’s remember that it is not the panacea for the health and care system’s problems.

Catherine Foot is assistant director of policy at the King’s Fund.

This blog also appears on the King’s Fund website at