Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Having a conversation about the NHS we'd like to have and the one we can actually afford.

Just before I set off to attend what had been billed as a 'community conversation' about local health services I received and email asking me to send a tweet celebrating the sixty eighth birthday of the NHS.

Happy to oblige, like most Britons I have a deep emotional attachment to the NHS, it helped to bring me in to the world and will probably see me out of it too. Though what sort of state it might be in by then is open to question.

When I arrived at the King's Hall a reasonably large crowd had assembled, milling about between the stalls set up by various charities. Most of the people present seemed to be associated with either the health service itself or one of the charities represented, suggesting that much of the afternoon would be an exercise in preaching to the converted.

To its credit the NHS has, in recent years anyway, made a concerted effort to open up itself up more to public involvement and scrutiny. For their part the public have mostly found something, anything else to do.

For all our protestations of love for the NHS we tend to treat it like a sort of parental figure, expected to be there when we need it; but to be ignored the rest of the time.

This isn't an attitude for which Margy Woodhead, Chair of the local Patients Congress and one of the four speakers has much time. In her view the 'voice of the public' has to be at the centre of how the health service makes decisions about how its large, but still far from adequate, budget is spent.

The public also, she said, have a vital role to play in identifying those areas where the NHS isn't delivering. What is needed is the widest possible range of voices, particularly from hard to reach, or easy to ignore, sections of the community; the people who would miss a free at the point of use health service most were it to wither away from neglect and inertia.

The need for a 'conversation' with the public was echoed by Sally Parkin, clinical director for partnerships and engagement with the Stoke-on-Trent clinical commissioning group. One where the main topic was 'prioritization',meaning how local health services manage to do more with less given the huge challenges they face.

The scale of these was outlined in a 'quiz' involving some slightly awkward audience participation. Locally the NHS spends almost half its budget on acute care, a hospital outpatient appointment costs £119, a trip to A&E costs £1,569.50 and an operation with a couple of nights on a ward to recover doesn't leave much change out of £3000.

These costs can quickly stack up when you consider the health inequalities people in the Stoke area face, as outlined in his presentation by Dr Andrew Bartlam, accountable officer for Stoke-on-Trent CCG.

For a start if you were born in Knutton you're likely to die fifteen years sooner than it you were born in the Westlands, along the way you're also more likely to suffer from a preventable illness. Childhood obesity levels remain high as does the suicide rate, with the latter 30% higher than the national average.

Add to that problems recruiting GPs and nurses to work in the area and continued pressure from central government to do more with less and the position looks grim indeed.

There is though, Dr Bartlam said, some hope of improvement offers by new models of care that take services out of expensive hospitals and move them closer to patients, more joined up working between CCG's and doing more to address well-being to keep people healthier for longer.

Even so the NHS faces internal and external challenges greater than any it has faced before, a service founded almost seventy years ago cannot continue to operate as if it were still 1948. It has to be more efficient, more focussed on squeezing the most benefit out of every pound it spends; all this whilst staying true to the principles upon which it was founded.

The way we, the public, treat the NHS has to change too, we cannot afford to take it for granted, that plays into the hands of those in government who would sell it off one little bit at a time until there was nothing left.

We need to take more responsibility for our own well-being to ease the strain on services and for being more involved in deciding how the they are funded. The NHS was created by ordinary people who believed, rightly, that health is a public good to be shared equally, it will be defended by people who feel the same way.

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