The good news is that every day, the vast majority of the 63.7 million people eligible to use the NHS, don’t need to. And every day you don’t need to use the NHS, someone else benefits. Most people are very capable of looking after themselves most of the time, self-treating for minor ailments and knowing when and where to seek help for serious illness. 90 per cent of symptoms are self-treated but an estimated fifty-two million visits to general practice each year are still for conditions that would get better with time. Self-care is likely to improve further when those who want it are given access to and control over their medical records and data, and technology is better used to direct you to the right information when you need it. In the meantime, a friendly pharmacist can often save you a trip to the GP.
The bad news is that demand in many areas outstrips both the supply of services and the funding for them. Patients who need care are having to wait longer for it, and too many referrals are rejected as not urgent enough, when the NHS should be doing its utmost to prevent emergencies.
There is a very, very big mental illness iceberg out there and it’s showing no signs of melting.
Life is tough enough for NHS staff, but imagine what it’s like for these children and their carers who can’t get any care at all? The pattern of services struggling – or simply not being able to cope safely – with the demands placed on staff is common across the NHS. Waiting times are creeping up, emergency departments are overflowing, people struggle to get a GP appointment, services are being restricted and rationed and lots of people are having to fend for themselves.The technology and choices patients now face can be very complex, but the strength of the NHS lies in its humanity and the ethos that as a society we should pool our resources to care for and protect the most vulnerable.
The NHS is nearly always buckling under the demands placed on it, partly because it’s a victim of its own success. Improvements in public health, wealth and healthcare since the NHS was founded sixty-seven years ago have been stunning. In 1948, half the population died before the age of sixty-five. Now, the average life expectancy is over eighty. One in three children born today will live to one hundred, but one in four boys born in Glasgow still won’t make it to sixty-five. The UK is still a very unequal society, and the rich not only live fifteen years longer than the poor, but they have up to twenty years more healthy living. Life is very, very unfair, which is why we need to fight poverty and build the confidence, courage and resilience in our children to live well, as well as improve and fund the NHS. Those who pay for it most often use it least. It’s the badge of honour for living in a humane society.
And we nearly all need it eventually if we want help or treatment. One in two people in the UK will get cancer, one in three will get diabetes and nearly everyone will get heart disease. Many of these diseases will be contained rather than cured. Obesity appears unstoppable. Liver disease, kidney disease, lung disease, musculoskeletal disease, depression and anxiety are all on the increase. Mental illnesses cost the UK over £70 billion a year, one in three of us experiences mental health problems every year and one in three people over sixty-five will die with dementia. Many people with dementia live for many years, even if they haven’t been diagnosed and treated. Dementia alone already costs the economy more than cancer and heart disease put together.
These chronic diseases account for 70 per cent of the NHS budget, although many can be delayed if not prevented by a healthier lifestyle. Those with three or more incurable diseases are usually on multiple medications, the combined effects of which are unknown. Many older patients on multiple drugs struggle to take them properly, and there’s a delicate balance between benefit and harm. Loneliness is often a far bigger problem.
The NHS and social care system is crucially dependent on millions of unpaid volunteers and carers, and many very dedicated but poorly paid care workers. The round-the-clock pressures and responsibilities they face are huge. If carers went on strike, the NHS and social care service would collapse overnight. Keeping it all afloat is a massive, collaborative effort and we are far too reliant on institutionalized care, rather than supporting people in their homes.
More women give birth in hospital than need or want to be there, so those who really need to have hospital births don’t always get safe care. Far too many frail elderly patients, many with dementia, end up in acute hospitals, often the most frightening and disorientating place they can be. Far too many people with mental illness end up in police custody and far too many people die in hospital when they want to die at home. We can change this, if services join up, and patients and carers receive the right training and support. Having chemotherapy or dialysis at home can transform not just your healthcare but your whole life. It doesn’t happen nearly enough.
Fixing the NHS and social care system will not be quick or easy, even if we put more money in. In many instances, it would often be kinder to have less high-tech, expensive intervention than more. If all we ever did in the NHS was capture the ideas and feedback from frontline staff, patients and carers, and use it to continuously improve a stable system that everyone understood, the NHS would be out of sight as the world’s best. We have to spend every available penny supporting and joining up the frontline – the NHS is not about the bricks and mortar, it’s about mobilizing and motivating a brilliant workforce to serve patients and give you as much control as you want over your care. And to do that, you need to find your voice and we need to listen to you.
Research done by the Health Foundation, When Doctors and Patients Talk, found that NHS staff are often as anxious and fearful as you are during consultations. They are anxious and frightened of missing an important diagnosis, not being able to give patients what they are entitled to, not being able to practise the standards of care they’d like to, having to deal with justifiable anger, missing a target they have been ordered to hit, being asked to do something they do not feel competent to do, or having to look after so many patients in such a short space of time they just do not feel safe. The ever-present fear is that they simply cannot cope safely with the demand. Just as we shouldn’t blame people for being ill or old or overweight, we shouldn’t blame NHS staff for not being able to always provide the highest standards of care. Praise, kindness and understanding are much better motivators.
And there’s plenty to be thankful for. The Commonwealth Fund in America compares the health systems in eleven countries and ranks them according to eleven measures: quality of care, effective care, safe care, coordinated care, patient-centred care, access, cost-related problems, timeliness of care, efficiency, equity, and healthy lives. You might expect Austria, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland or America to thrash us. In fact, the 2014 ranking (based on 2011 data) puts the UK top of the healthcare table overall, and first in eight of the eleven categories. It came second in equity to Sweden, and third behind Switzerland and the Netherlands for timeliness of care. The NHS is far from perfect, but we should celebrate and publicize the amazing care it often gives, try to improve the good care it usually gives and quickly address the poor care it occasionally gives, so further harm is prevented.
To improve, the NHS needs to be simplified so that anyone can understand it. We pretend to distinguish between healthcare and social care, but it’s all ‘care’ and it should be joined into one care system, with those with the greatest need treated by one team with one named person responsible for coordinating your care. And we must all do everything we can to live well. In the NHS, the staff spend too much time diving into the river of illness, pulling people out and trying to put them back together that no-one has time to wander upstream and look at who’s pushing you in.