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5 May 2009 : Column 12WH—continued

The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) quoted the chief medical officer on access to the management of pain relief. That problem goes much
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wider than fibromyalgia. More than 60 per cent. of all health care occurs in the community these days and one of the biggest challenges facing all Governments in the next 20 or 30 years will be the management of long-term conditions. That will include the management of chronic pain. It is not easy to manage, as different conditions produce different types of pain, but we must get a grip on it. I welcome the chief medical officer’s words. Without a doubt, that is what will put people back into the communities where they live, re-establish their social networks, get them back into employment and increase their income. It is vital that we manage that for the future.

The hon. Member for North Norfolk catalogued the depressing responses to parliamentary questions. Like him, I have no doubt that the Minister, in her response, will sweep away the impressions that they have created. I hope that she will confirm and re-establish that the Government take the condition seriously. Specifically, what steps is she taking to ensure that the training of doctors in particular includes a greater awareness of the significance of the signs and symptoms with which patients might present?

Fibromyalgia is not the only condition of which I have heard recently whose diagnosis creates issues in GPs’ surgeries. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East said, we are not knocking GPs; it is an indication of the huge breadth of knowledge that they need these days. As medical care and treatment become increasingly specialised, it is important that the Government take steps to ensure that GPs receive continuing professional education so that they can be confident in recognising and accessing treatment for such conditions. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) reinforced that point. It involves not only GPs but all health care workers. The issue could also, in some instances, be addressed in schools. There has never been a greater need for awareness of the implications of signs and symptoms in the minds of the public sector workers who work with and meet the people affected.

What specific plans does the Minister have for improving the treatment of fibromyalgia and access to secondary referral? The answers to parliamentary questions have been disappointing, and I am sure that she will take steps to address that. Raising the profile and awareness of fibromyalgia among the groups that I mentioned is vital. Will she give the matter personal attention and demonstrate that the Government are aware that people with the syndrome are not getting the attention that they deserve, and will she take steps to ensure that attitudes from the Department of Health downwards change so that people get the care that they deserve and need?

This is also a useful opportunity for the Minister to clarify the position of NICE. As she said, NICE is independent, which is extremely important. However, as I understand it, it works within a framework put together by the Government. Although we broadly welcome NICE’s independence and much of the work that it does, there are situations in which access to treatment regimes is not being made available by NICE. Response is slow. I am sure that she will take this opportunity to clarify those issues and demonstrate that she can do something to improve the lot of people with fibromyalgia.

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10.24 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Ann Keen): I sincerely congratulate the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) on securing this debate, and I acknowledge that we have not discussed fibromyalgia in the House before. I know that he has worked extremely hard to champion the cause of people living with fibromyalgia, not least as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the condition. I am grateful to him for giving us the opportunity to debate it today. As he acknowledged at the beginning of his speech, although we meant well, the weekend situation caused us some difficulty in responding to all the points in advance. Every one of us wants the best for those suffering from that chronic, distressing, uncomfortable and painful condition.

I recognise how distressing fibromyalgia can be to those living with the condition and to their families, and I know that much of that distress is caused by difficulties recognising, acknowledging and accepting the condition and its impact. Like other chronic conditions, fibromyalgia can significantly affect physical and emotional well-being and disrupt work, social and family life.

What can we do to raise the profile of fibromyalgia? I believe that this is the start of an important dialogue, particularly with the all-party group. I think that Members, particularly Front Benchers, recognise that setting NHS must-dos is not easy, as such things affect every one of us and every part of our bodies. The Department of Health must be sparing in setting those priorities centrally because of the criticism that we often receive when we attempt to do so. I know that everyone in this Chamber is here in good heart, but it is important to put it on the record that if we were to keep giving the NHS priorities, my list, let alone those of the rest of the ministerial team, would be long.

The Department has set up the National Quality Board to advise Ministers what priorities the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence should adopt in setting NHS standards, as well as which conditions require the Department’s closer attention. The priorities are likely to be based on an objective assessment of the burden of disease and an analysis of the gap between the quality of existing services and best current practice. That is something that we can work with.

Like other chronic conditions, fibromyalgia can significantly affect physical and emotional well-being, which in turn affects the social and financial economy of the family, the community and the country. Sadly, there is no cure, so treatment aims to ease symptoms as much as possible and improve patients’ quality of life. However, we all know that care for people with fibromyalgia varies widely, as has been demonstrated by Members today, particularly those representing rural areas. In the worst cases, people with the condition are left feeling that the health care system does not recognise their illness. I can understand why patients would feel that way. I acknowledge the points made today. The case has been made that better services, quicker diagnosis and better understanding can make a major difference to the quality of life of people with fibromyalgia. I want to respond as positively as I can to the issues raised.

Let me be clear that we want to ensure that people with the condition live as well as possible. Their quality of life is important to all health professionals, particularly
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Ministers with responsibility for health. I pay tribute to the hard work and dedication of the voluntary sector in helping people with fibromyalgia, especially FibroAction and the Fibromyalgia Association UK. It is important to raise awareness among the medical profession and the public at large, and such organisations have been at the forefront of improving knowledge of this distressing condition.

As a health professional, I know that it is unnerving to be faced with a patient who knows more about their condition than I do, but in these days of technology, the internet provides access to wider knowledge and patients feel that they have more autonomy. To receive no response is thus even more frustrating. I totally acknowledge what has been said today, and I am confident that there are people present here who could enlighten us even further.

There is comprehensive information on the care of people with fibromyalgia specifically for health professionals on NHS Evidence, which is the new web-based portal that provides all health and social care professionals with authoritative clinical and non-clinical evidence and best practice. It provides access to a range of information, including primary research literature, practical implementation tools, guidelines and policy documents.

The NHS Choices website provides information to help put patients in control of their health care. It contains a number of sections that deal with fibromyalgia. There is detailed information on diagnosis, treatment and on living with the condition. NHS Choices has launched a free training programme for health professionals to improve their understanding of all the features available on NHS Choices, including how to direct patients to local services and how to access NHS accredited information about healthy living and conditions.

Norman Lamb: While the Minister is on the subject of NHS Choices, will she speak about choose and book? Patients can now make choices about where they go and doctors can advise them on what might be best. Will she explore whether the system can guide clinicians to the right specialist services, wherever they are in the country?

Ann Keen: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I believe that best practice happens in certain areas. As with any new initiative, some places take the reins quicker and more effectively than others. We are working towards that being addressed.

Hon. Members have mentioned awareness of the condition among GPs and other health professionals. I am sure that all hon. Members are aware that the Department does not specify the content of training curricula. That is done by the royal colleges and is determined by regulatory requirements and the needs of the service. Nevertheless, we expect all health care staff to learn and to get the training and skills that they need to deal with all their patients. Obviously that includes those with fibromyalgia.

Mr. Rob Wilson: I thank the Minister for her response so far. I am interested by the NHS Evidence web portal. I believe that it is for health professionals. Is it possible for members of the public or parliamentarians to look at what it advises general practitioners to do, so that we have a clear view of the situation?

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Ann Keen: NHS Choices and NHS Evidence are certainly becoming more transparent and open. I am happy to investigate that for the hon. Gentleman.

Although we cannot direct the curriculum, we expect all health care staff to get the training and skills that they need. Education and training for health care staff is, and always has been, a priority for the Department of Health. However, we accept that there is room for improvement. As will be obvious from Lord Darzi’s review of the NHS, we are looking at the content of curricula for undergraduate and postgraduate training in health and social care. That is important because of how long-term conditions will be treated in the community in future, as the hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) said. We are looking at this matter, but we cannot dictate it.

Anne Milton: While I appreciate that the Government do not dictate the curricula, does the Minister not accept that there are issues, not only with fibromyalgia, but with many chronic conditions? There is an issue with GPs getting time off to do adequate training. Some GPs need training, but do not volunteer for it. There are issues for other health care staff and for nurses in particular. There can be problems with the ring-fencing of training budgets and with their use to cover shortfalls elsewhere. I am worried that we will slip backwards on training issues because NHS finances are quite tight. That would be a false economy. Money for continuing professional development is vital.

Ann Keen: That point was well made and it is well taken. The safety and quality that are required in the NHS cannot be provided, nor the professionalism of the health care team maintained, without the knowledge that is required. I am confident that it will be accepted that nurses are at the centre of that team and that they direct it.

The transparency that we have asked for replaces ring-fencing and is much better than it. We will be able to see where the money is spent and whether education and training are given priority. The settlement for the NHS has been made up to 2010-11. We have always said that investment in education and training is paramount in everything we do, particularly at this difficult time. I should ask the Conservatives whether that investment will continue during the recession under their pledges on NHS funding. Some health professionals are not aware of conditions that may present at their practices in the way that they could and should be. We must correct that situation.

Norman Lamb: I am grateful for the Minister’s generosity in continuing to give way.

Having just checked, I understand that NHS Evidence is a new portal that was developed primarily by NICE. Given that NICE has been fairly unhelpful in its willingness to provide guidance on this condition, does the Minister know what NHS Evidence says about the treatment of this condition or what advice it gives to GPs? Should that be investigated to ensure that NHS Evidence is giving helpful guidance?

Ann Keen: The hon. Gentleman has an advantage over me in being able to use his IT equipment in the Chamber.

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Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. That has not escaped the notice of the Chair and it will be raised at the next meeting of the Chairmen’s Panel.

Ann Keen: Moving on swiftly, Lord Darzi’s review of the NHS will look at the content of the curricula for undergraduate and postgraduate training in health and social care. Fibromyalgia diagnosis and care will benefit from that work. I hope that that will give reassurance to hon. Members and to sufferers.

The hon. Member for Reading, East will be aware that in 2003 the chief medical officer issued a newsletter to all doctors in England to raise awareness of the condition and the extent to which it affects the population. We can send out such directives, but it is difficult to monitor how they are received. However, we know that it was well received by patients and health professionals. I have asked officials to look into the feasibility of reporting that exercise.

Mr. Rob Wilson: The hon. Lady said “reporting”. Did she mean repeating the exercise?

Ann Keen: We want to look at what has happened with that exercise since 2003, and to report back, and we are able to repeat that exercise easily, especially given what the chief medical officer has said about pain, which has been acknowledged on both sides of the House today.

Guidance has been mentioned, particularly the use of NICE guidance in securing improvements and reducing variations in the quality of care. As the hon. Gentleman and others have said, the Fibromyalgia Association UK has asked NICE, as part of its topic selection process, to consider developing clinical guidance on the diagnosis and management of fibromyalgia. Hon. Members have acknowledged the importance of NICE’s independence, but I have also been asked other questions. Both FMA UK and the hon. Gentleman have expressed concern at the slow progress in receiving a response from NICE, and I can confirm that the association has now been informed of the outcome of this topic. I have been asked whether I can intervene. Anyone can write to NICE with a request, but after matters are considered by the panel of experts, they are passed to Ministers for approval, so it is difficult for Ministers to intervene at the beginning of the process.

In 2006, we launched the musculoskeletal services framework, which sets out guidance to provide high-quality and integrated services for people with musculoskeletal conditions, including fibromyalgia. The framework will help to improve the assessment and diagnosis of, and treatment for, fibromyalgia and other musculoskeletal conditions. It will encourage the giving of more support to help people to manage their own conditions, and it will get across better information and advice. It will also provide a clearer focus on the needs of children and families. The framework also supports an 18-week target for the time from referrals from GPs to the start of hospital treatment.

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Pain is a common, distressing and often disabling symptom in many musculoskeletal conditions, including fibromyalgia. The Department of Health has already supported the work of the NHS on the management of chronic pain through a number of important initiatives, including the musculoskeletal services framework, the 18-week commissioning pathway for the management and treatment of chronic pain, and the NHS Choices website. I must correct the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) on one point: the development of the 18-week commissioning pathway for pain, in particular, assists commissioners in delivering the appropriate services for their populations. The pathway for chronic pain, which was developed with leading pain clinicians and with the consensus of a wide range of key stakeholders, will help to transform services with examples of good practice. It recommends the use of the brief pain inventory to assess the level and impact of pain, which is an important tool in assessing the patient.

I worked for many years as a community and district nurse, and I observed at first hand, when I told patients that their test results had come back negative, the guilt that they experienced for feeling pain when their test was negative. My practice, at all times, was to accept that the patient had the pain that they said they had. Those are the only criteria on which health professionals should operate. These issues are so mixed, especially when psychological aspects are taken into consideration. The fact that some patients are prescribed antidepressants, rather than analgesia, as has been mentioned, shows the need for pain to be managed differently, and I commend the chief medical officer for his statement.

I recently responded to an Adjournment debate in the main Chamber that had been secured by the chair of the all-party group on chronic pain, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg). I certainly think that the two all-party groups should talk together. On that evening, the chair was supported by the Chronic Pain Policy Coalition, and I met them at the end of the debate to say how important work on pain is. It should not be something that one puts up with; there is a limit. Pain is subjective, and it is important to have the correct measuring tools. I remember that one of the most distressing parts of my work as a practising nurse was to leave someone in pain without having an answer for them—that is no longer acceptable.

Officials are currently scoping regional events to support the voluntary sector in influencing commissioners to provide better pain services locally, and to engage with professional bodies to raise awareness about chronic pain and about the needs of patients with chronic pain. The development and content of those events is being taken forward with the third sector, and I will ask officials to ensure that fibromyalgia groups are involved in that process. Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Reading, East for bringing this important issue to the attention of the House, and particularly for the manner in which he has done so.

10.44 am

Sitting suspended.

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