As we start the new year it’s becoming almost a seasonal tradition in the UK for headlines about overcrowded hospitals, delays in treatment and pressures on hardworking NHS staff to dominate the news. An aging population and resource constraints means more needs to be done and fast, including preventing people falling into crisis in the gap between home and hospital, between social care and the health service.
January is always a difficult month for the health service, with seasonal illnesses taking a toll on a system that is already strained. Hospital staff report that the anticipated ‘quiet period’ post-January is getting shorter and pressure is present all year round. But there are two truths – the NHS really is working harder and more efficiently than ever, yet demand from patients and the public are increasing faster than the system can cope with.
This time last year, the British Red Cross described some of the challenges facing our health and social care services and the consequences for people and patients who were struggling to get the care they need – not just during winter, but throughout the year.
But we also need to be part of the solution. As a voluntary organisation, we bring unique experience and insight which we must share. The British Red Cross has been working with the NHS for over 70 years. We support around 300,000 people across the UK, working with emergency departments and hospital discharge teams, providing ambulance support, transporting patients to and from hospital and supporting older and vulnerable people in their homes.
All of this gives us unique insight into every stage of a person’s journey through the system, from home to hospital. The current focus is on pressures on A&Es, but looking at hospitals in isolation would be to ignore the wider, interconnected challenges – and the potential solutions.
To us it is clear that many of the issues faced by people in hospital start in the home. We encounter people who have come in and out of hospital, with nobody questioning why their needs have spiralled into something much more complex. While people might appear to be medically fit for discharge, a regular cycle of readmission so often signals that something is amiss at home.
Hard-working hospital staff are pulled between the pressures of trying to free up beds for newly arrived patients whilst also making sure others are well enough to be discharged. Many of us will have been a patient ourselves at one time or another, and know no-one wants to be stuck in hospital when they could be back at home. Equally no-one wants to be sent home before they’re ready.
Our British Red Cross volunteers and staff work in hospital discharge teams, making sure people can get home safely, have the medication and equipment they need, and make follow-up visits to reassure people as they recover, identifying any extra help they might need. Non-clinical interventions can make all the difference.
We need to share our learnings. Later this month, we will be publishing a report with a series of recommendations, based on our experience and insight into health and social care. The NHS is rightly a source of national pride, and as it comes under increasing pressure, then the voluntary sector must be part of the solution.