Last week, I was invited as a member of the Medical Journalists Association to Westminster Hall for an evening Press launch from the Patients Association. Never did I think that I would find myself as a medical journalist reporting on the future of the NHS. It was certainly very strange feeling to be reporting on what was the air that I breathe. Air that is becoming increasingly thinner.
In setting the scene, the new chair Chris Hix outlined the proposal for an Independent Commission on the Future Funding of the NHS and Social Care. Swingeing cuts had been associated with low morale, with cuts only serving to increase the likelihood of patients getting lost in the system, receiving poor care and an increase in complaints.
The film that followed was striking in its human touch, with Jo Brand exasperated that "beds just aren't available". Ex-BBC newsreader and Vice President Angela Ripon was keen to convey the message that 'The Patients Association listens", while Esther Rantzen pointed out "They are getting more calls than ever". This now meant that the Association needs an extra £1million in extra funding to meet the increasing demand for its services "as patient services face deepening crisis". The Million Pound Fund will support vital helpline activities to support patients and the pressing need for such funding was also stressed by others in the film, notably Sir Robert Francis QC and Dr Phil Hammond.
Holding the government to account in how it funds health and social care is long overdue and patients deserve no less. Lying at the heart of the proposal is disentangling the funding mechanisms to achieve a 'sustainable service for patients'. This will start from the principle of free treatment at the point of care that is already enshrined within the NHS. It will consider how much we need to spend as a society; exploring other possible sources of additional funding such as tax, national insurance contributions and ring-fenced funding. This is a stark message to the government that the good NHS is not just down with a cold but moribund with a fever. Countries such as Norway and New Zealand appear to better at maximising their health and social care resources than the UK. There is much that we could learn from them, in the face of not only year on year cuts in funding but also addressing the complex needs of an ageing population and spending on agency staff.
The Patients Association Chief Executive, Katherine Murphy, said:
"The crisis in the NHS is growing by the day, with no sign of resolution. Calls to the Patients Association's national helpline have soared in the last 6 months, with patients and their families growing more anxious about errors and the poor care they have received". The root cause is almost certainly the financial deficit of nearly £3 billion for Trusts in England. With these Trusts "facing a meltdown in their organisations". She went on to say "Our overall helpline activity has increased significantly, as has the complexity of the cases that we see".
The Public Accounts Committee latest report has stated 'there is not yet a convincing plan in place for closing the £22 billion efficiency gap and avoiding a black hole in NHS finances'. It went on to detail that the performance of NHS Trusts had deteriorated sharply and that Government efficiency targets were 'unrealistic'. The current system is clearly not fit for purpose, with the use of agency staff shooting up by 24%.
Chris Hix concluded:
"It is clear that substantial proportions of the additional monies announced by the Government to support the NHS are simply being used to address existing deficits. That is why we are proposing the establishment of our new Independent Commission on funding of the NHS and Social Care. It would report as quickly as possible and we will be looking to announce its membership and terms of reference in due course."
A pleasant surprise from the Press launch was the observation that no mention was made of the impending industrial action by junior doctors. Today on Radio 4 I tried to hit home the message today that junior doctors strive for the best possible care for their patients and that stretching them further to achieve a seven day service without additional funding and supposedly fewer hours of work can only lead to rota gaps and burnout. A fair and safe contract for junior doctors can only mean an improvement in ensuring safe and effective patient care.
With its seven volunteers and 80 'Ambassadors', the Patients Association is trying to keep its head above water, but it needs our help. As the voice of patients, it should be allowed to continue to stand tall and challenge the mechanism of funding for health and social care. Without the necessary funding for itself, the fate of the country lies in the hands of a government that will continue to lack transparency and accountability and a vicious circle of low morale, burnout, inadequate staff provision and patient complaints will rip out the lifeline from the very heart of an NHS which is still the envy of the world. The voice of patients and doctors is being drowned out by the silence of government inaction. It is time for us to cure the NHS so that it can lead a healthier life.