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This is a plain English summary of an original research article. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and reviewer(s) at the time of publication.

Among principles that can help when decommissioning out-dated, unsafe or poor value services are clear leadership and transparency about the reason for change with patients, clinicians and local communities.

Modernising healthcare often involves reducing, replacing and removing services. This is called decommissioning and the task varies with the local context.

This NIHR-funded study reviewed previous research and conducted interviews and surveys. Case studies showed consistent problems across different decommissioning activities, ranging from a lack of resources to implement the change and a lack of political involvement, to the need for evidence-based support.

Decommissioning is important to ensure that other, better, services can be provided within financial constraints. Both clinical effectiveness and patient experience need to be considered. This study shows that despite the differences and the impossibility of designing one decommissioning format for all activities, good communication and engagement with all stakeholders is crucial.

Why was this study needed?

With the constant development of new interventions, health systems need to adapt to run efficient healthcare services. This is particularly important when resources, in the form of budget, infrastructure or staff, are limited.

The NHS is under great pressure to improve services and develop a system that is sustainable in the long run. Decommissioning is viewed as innovative and necessary to change services that are out-dated, are not considered clinical priorities, represent poor value for money or may present risks to patient safety.

Several challenges stand in the way of the successful decommissioning of healthcare services, and the best way to implement these changes has not yet been identified.

This study aimed to bring together current evidence, expert opinion and community perspectives when considering barriers and facilitators to decommissioning healthcare services.

What did this study do?

The study took place over 2013-16, was focused on the NHS and was performed in four parts. Part one included a literature review, interviews with seven leaders of previous decommissioning programmes and a survey of 30 health professionals.

Part two was an online survey of clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) in England, with responses from 56 (27% of all CCGs). Part three comprised four case studies of decommissioning projects through document analysis, 59 interviews and staff observations. Finally, the authors conducted focus group discussions with 30 patient, carer and local community group representatives.

Among the limitations of the study are the small number of participant CCGs and a lack of a standard way to track outcomes resulting from decommissioning activities.

What did it find?

The research found that:

  • There is a lack of international evidence on the best process for decommissioning services.
  • Healthcare professionals believe that decommissioning activities need clarity of reasoning for change and executive and clinical leadership.
  • There is a high level of decommissioning activities within the NHS, reported in 77% of the clinical commissioning groups that answered the survey. The most common activity reported was moving of services. The main intended outcome was improved cost-effectiveness, followed by improved patient experience.
  • Citizens, patient representatives, carers and local community groups felt a strong degree of loss when services were decommissioned. They often thought that it was for financial or political reasons rather than to improve patient care. They did agree that, under some circumstances, replacing and removing services is necessary and justified, but no consensus was achieved for moving services. The same survey (part four of the study) showed a general interest from patients and the public to engage decommissioning activities. This was not identified in the initial survey of NHS leaders and experts as part of good-practice principles for decommissioning (part one).
  • The case studies identified multiple barriers to decommissioning, mostly due to resource constraints, system complexity and lack of support for the changes by clinicians, patients and the local community.

What does current guidance say on this issue?

No national guidance is available for decommissioning of healthcare services. CCGs have developed decommissioning standard operating procedures or policies setting principles and procedures of these activities. These documents outline steps involved in the process including setting up a steering group, consultation with stakeholders and providing adequate notice of the proposed changes to all involved.

What are the implications?

This study draws attention to some of the difficulties faced when decommissioning services.

The authors found that when financial pressures were downplayed as the reason for decommissioning, this often led to greater general opposition to the process through increased cynicism. Wider stakeholder involvement, including patients and the local community with more transparent reasons for change, could help to avoid this situation. It might also provide more opportunity to discuss concerns, identify potential gaps in service provision following decommissioning and achieve agreement on alternative solutions.

However, the lack of information on outcomes limits the ability to make firm conclusions.

Citation and Funding

Williams I, Harlock J, Robert G, et al. Decommissioning health care: identifying best practice through primary and secondary research – a prospective mixed-methods study. Health Serv Deliv Res 2017;5(22).

This project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research Health Services and Delivery Research.


Examples of Clinical Commissioning Group policies and procedures for decommissioning:

Callaghan F. Policy for Service Review and De-Commissioning Decisions. Rushcliffe: NHS North and East Clinical Commissioning Group, Nottingham West Clinical Commissioning Group, Rushcliffe Clinical Commissioning Group; 2016.

NHS Northumberland, North Tyneside, Newcastle North and East, Newcastle West, Gateshead, South Tyneside, Sunderland, North Durham, Durham Dales, Easington and Sedgefield, Darlington, Hartlepool and Stockton on Tees and South Tees Clinical Commissioning Groups. Standard Operating Procedure: CCG SOP03 Decommissioning Procedure. Northumberland, North Tyneside, Newcastle North and East, Newcastle West, Gateshead, South Tyneside, Sunderland, North Durham, Durham Dales, Easington and Sedgefield, Darlington, Hartlepool and Stockton on Tees and South Tees Clinical Commissioning Groups; 2013.

Produced by the University of Southampton and Bazian on behalf of NIHR through the NIHR Dissemination Centre

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