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Politicians Ignore The NHS At Their Peril

25/04/2017 16:48 BST | Updated 26/04/2017 13:53 BST
Dan Kitwood via Getty Images

I remember when I first started my training as a junior doctor at Northampton General. On my first day I remember walking onto Knightly Ward and how much it felt like being an imposter with a stethoscope.

I knew it would be intense, and I knew it would be stressful, but ultimately I wanted more than anything to do my best for the patients in my care.

But as we saw in the revealing new Channel 4 documentary Confessions of a Junior Doctor, new job nerves aren't the only pressures for newly qualified doctors. The NHS itself is under unprecedented pressure and is failing to keep up with rising demand. If the health and care service continues to be deprived of much-needed resource this will impact on patients and will ultimately limit the care doctors can provide.

In the first episode we saw a junior doctor called Sam who was considering leaving the profession altogether. It's worrying, if not surprising, that such a high number of junior doctors - almost one in three - have considered leaving the profession. Just half of those who finished their first two years on the job in 2016 went straight into NHS training to become a specialist or GP. To lose a larger swathe of doctors at the beginning of their career would be a disaster for the NHS.

And it isn't hard to see why he, and others, want to leave. Sam, in last night's episode, was dealing with the fallout of a staffing shortage and was looking after double the number of beds he should have been responsible for. Another junior doctor, Hollie, hadn't finished work on time once in her first month as a trainee. Another senior doctor outlined the huge number of rota gaps the hospital was dealing with, with even more predicted for the week after. It's no surprise that morale is so low.

And we can't forget that it's our patients who will bear the brunt of these problems - they are already. The number of people waiting more than 18 weeks for elective surgery is up by almost 80%. Major hospitals in England are failing to see almost one in seven accident and emergency patients within four hours. The average waiting time for a GP appointment will soon hit two weeks, and 201 surgeries closed altogether last year.

Concerns raised last year by junior doctors around patient safety, workload and morale were repeatedly ignored by the government. The result is an NHS that is now at breaking point with the health service having just experienced one of the worst winters on record. Patients waited waiting longer for ambulances, treatment, admission and discharge. A third of hospitals in England issued alerts warning they needed urgent action to cope and comments comparing the situation in our hospitals to that of a humanitarian crisis show the system is under unprecedented pressure. Staff worked harder than ever, under increasingly difficult circumstances, but the NHS was, and is, struggling to keep up with the sheer number of patients coming through the door.

On almost every front, the NHS is being asked to deliver more, with less. Less money, fewer staff, more patients. You don't need to be a genius to work out this isn't sustainable and that something has got to give. Short-term solutions to increasing demand, like using more agency staff or outsourcing work to the private sector, will plug holes in the service, but will ultimately lead to bigger financial problems in the future. The NHS is chronically underfunded, and the fact is that we can only get to grips with the pressure facing our health service if every part of the system -- from general practice to social care -- is adequately funded, supported and working well. Investment in the NHS needs to keep up with patient demand, staff shortages must be addressed and care must be better integrated. We need urgent investment in health and social care, and a long-term plan to protect patients enduring some of the worst conditions in decades.

With another General Election taking place in just a few weeks, politicians of all parties can no longer duck the crisis in the NHS. Funding, public health, patient safety, the crisis in general practice, the future of EU staff working in the NHS - these should be key election issues rather than pushed to the margins because of a narrow focus on Brexit. Consecutive governments have been in denial about the state of the NHS and when it comes to elections have chosen to use it as a political football. Our health and social care systems can no longer cope without urgent action. We need all parties to outline credible and sustainable plans that will safeguard the future of the fully funded and supported NHS that staff want and patients deserve. The NHS is one of the best health care systems in the world, but is now a breaking point. Ignoring it won't just mean a worse future for doctors like Sam and Holly, but for the patients they are working beyond their limit to care for.