Hospitals need to understand patient flows in an increasingly competitive health economy. New initiatives like Patient Choice and the Darzi Review further increase this demand. Essential to understanding patient flows are demographic and geographic profiles of health care service providers, known as ‘catchment areas’ and ‘catchment populations’. This information helps Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) to review how their populations are accessing services, measure inequalities and commission services; likewise it assists Secondary Care Providers (SCPs) to measure and assess potential gains in market share, redesign services, evaluate admission thresholds and plan financial budgets. Unlike PCTs, SCPs do not operate within fixed geographic boundaries. Traditionally, SCPs have used administrative boundaries or arbitrary drive times to model catchment areas. Neither approach satisfactorily represents current patient flows. Furthermore, these techniques are time-consuming and can be challenging for healthcare managers to exploit. This paper presents three different approaches to define catchment areas, each more detailed than the previous method. The first approach ‘First Past the Post’ defines catchment areas by allocating a dominant SCP to each Census Output Area (OA). The SCP with the highest proportion of activity within each OA is considered the dominant SCP. The second approach ‘Proportional Flow’ allocates activity proportionally to each OA. This approach allows for cross-boundary flows to be captured in a catchment area. The third and final approach uses a gravity model to define a catchment area, which incorporates drive or travel time into the analysis. Comparing approaches helps healthcare providers to understand whether using more traditional and simplistic approaches to define catchment areas and populations achieves the same or similar results as complex mathematical modelling. This paper has demonstrated, using a case study of Manchester, that when estimating the catchment area of a planned new hospital, the extra level of detail provided by the gravity model may prove necessary. However, in virtually all other applications, the Proportional Flow method produced the optimal model for catchment populations in Manchester, based on several criteria: it produced the smallest RMS error; it addressed cross-boundary flows; the data used to create the catchment was readily available to SCPs; and it was simpler to reproduce than the gravity model method. Further work is needed to address how the Proportional Flow method can be used to reflect service redesign and handle OAs with zero or low activity. A next step should be the rolling out of the method across England and looking at further drill downs of data such as catchment by Healthcare Resource Group (HRG) rather than specialty level.
Proportional FlowFirst Past the PostGravity modelCatchment areasCatchment populationsSecondary care providersProviders