As part of the launch of our annual Care Report, barrister, Jonathan Landau, looks in more detail at the CQC’s new strategy and the likely consequences. 

The care sector is an integral part of the UK’s societal landscape – both in economic terms and the number of vulnerable people it services. With an ageing population – with estimates suggesting a 36% growth in the number of people aged over 85 by 2025 – it’s clear that the sector will only grow in prominence over the coming years. 

The regulatory structure that sits around the sector has been governed by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) since 2009 when the external body was created to regulate and monitor health and social care services in England, taking over the roles and responsibilities of the Healthcare Commission, Commission for Social Care Inspection and Mental Health Act Commission. In bringing together these three predecessor organisations it was (and remains) the CQC’s stated aim to ensure that, “health and social care services provide people with safe, effective, compassionate and high-quality care.”

Initially the CQC inspected and monitored registered care providers in accordance with 16 ‘essential standards’ of quality and safety. However in the years that followed its creation there was, both within the CQC and the wider industry, a perceived lack of understanding as to how the essential standards were applied and interpreted in practice, prompting new ‘fundamental standards of care’ in 2015. To assist in enforcing the required standards, the CQC was given new powers, transforming it from an inspection and monitoring organisation into a regulator with teeth, including not only civil enforcement powers, but also the ability to prosecute those who had failed to meet those required standards.

Roll on six years and the role of the CQC remains a great source of debate. A global pandemic has made a seismic change to the way in which the CQC has pursued its objectives, and earlier this year it introduced a new strategy ‘for the changing world of health and social care’. The aim of the strategy, published in May 2021, is to strengthen the CQC’s commitment to deliver its purpose.

The CQC claims that its aims and role as a regulator won’t change – but how it works will be different. The strategy is based on four themes:

People and communities

Regulation that’s driven by people’s needs and experiences, focusing on

what’s important to people and communities when they access, use and move between services.

Smarter regulation

Smarter, more dynamic and flexible regulation that provides up-to-date and high-quality information and ratings, easier ways of working with the CQC and a more proportionate response.

Safety through learning

Regulating for stronger safety cultures across health and care, prioritising

learning and improvement and collaborating to value everyone’s perspectives.

Accelerating improvement

Enabling health and care services and local systems to access support to help improve the quality of care where it’s needed most.

The ‘smarter regulation’ theme is likely to have the biggest impact on providers, in terms of how they are inspected and rated. There will be a move away from relying chiefly on comprehensive on-site inspections. Instead, the CQC will develop continuous insight and monitoring methodologies. It anticipates that this will enable inspectors to spend more time speaking with people when on site rather than looking at paperwork.

The CQC also plans to develop innovative ways of analysing data and using AI to make decisions. Ratings will be more dynamic and won’t require an inspection for a change in rating.

All of this presents both risks and opportunities. In terms of risks, the validity of the CQC’s judgements will only be as robust as the systems it uses and the data it obtains. Providers, their advisors, and representative bodies will need to scrutinise the methodologies as they develop and quickly raise concerns. It’s likely that AI, for example, will pose some difficulties, with the potential for some very uncomfortable – even discriminatory – decisions for the CQC. Providers will also need to advocate for a fair system of challenging any decisions, as it seems unlikely that the factual accuracy correction procedure will not be available for such a dynamic regulatory scheme. That is particularly important if the CQC is obtaining information from sources it cannot itself verify and if it is making decisions on an AI (read automated) basis.

In terms of opportunities, providers that develop good relationships with stakeholders, and who invest time in understanding the CQC’s methodologies, will be well-placed to achieve good ratings and may benefit from lighter touch regulation. The more developed the CQC’s methodologies are, the easier it will be for providers to ensure that they can provide the evidence to satisfy the independent regulator.  

Currently, the CQC is targeting services with which it has concerns. In many cases, it does not have concerns about homes with lower ratings because of the improvements they have made. That leaves them stuck on lower ratings, because the CQC is not re-inspecting them. The ability for ratings to improve quickly is therefore very welcome.  

The themes of the new strategy are laudable, but it is inevitable that there will be unintended consequences and teething problems as the methodologies develop. Case associations and providers’ trusted advisors will be well-placed to keep them informed as the detail emerges.

Jonathan Landau is a barrister at 5 Essex Court. He has particular expertise in inquests and healthcare regulation. Joanthan is regularly instructed in relation to high profile Article 2 and jury inquests, often in the context of media coverage or regulatory investigations. He advises in respect of a broad range of healthcare regulatory matters including all levels of CQC and Ofsted enforcement, safeguarding investigations, commissioning disputes, contract monitoring, and mental capacity.

 

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