In recent months we have again witnessed the impact of severe winter pressures on the NHS which has left hospitals buckling under unprecedented demand.
While these seasonal bottlenecks have become a depressingly familiar pattern in the health service in recent years, it is also clear that the intensity of strain on the NHS is growing.
While media reports of beds in hospital corridors and queued ambulances outside A&E departments have reignited political debate over the Gordian Knot of long-term NHS funding, there is also a pressing need to look at creative solutions beyond more cash.
Our health and care system is much more than the NHS – it includes social and community care and services provided by the many charities, like hospices, who deliver vital care and support in our communities.
We need a sustainable health and care system that works in an integrated way to meet both current substantial need and also increasing future demand.
Mounting concerns over how we will care for the UK’s growing population of older people – many of whom will likely experience one or more complex health conditions - heightens the urgency for a different approach.
As the NHS prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary, it’s time for a new approach to better strategic partnerships between the NHS and voluntary sector organisations such as hospices.
As well as taking some of the pressure off hospitals by caring for more people at the end of life at home, it would also help radically improve people’s experiences of end of life care.
It is also in keeping with the strategic direction of travel for the NHS towards more community-based services, as outlined in its Five Year Forward View.
Hospice UK believes there is huge potential for the NHS to work more closely with charitable hospices in future to ensure that more people get the care and support they need at the end of life.
And the public agrees.
Nearly three quarters of UK adults (73%) say hospice services should be used more to help relieve the pressure on hospitals according to an earlier ComRes survey we commissioned.
Many charitable hospices already work directly with the NHS in different local partnerships across the UK but this needs to happen on a wider scale.
For example, we know there are high numbers of people approaching the end of life who find themselves in hospital. However, often they have no clinical need to be in a hospital bed and would be better off receiving the comfort and care provided by a hospice in their own home, or, if needed, in a hospice.
Hospice UK is seeking to demonstrate the value of such an approach through a new study part-funded by NHS England.
It will look at the effect of hospice-led services in providing alternatives to a hospital stay at the end of life and to better support dying people and ensure they are cared for in the place of their choice, either in a hospice, or in their home supported by a hospice.
We believe that this could significantly reduce the number of people at the end of life who are admitted to hospital unnecessarily every year – and also help ease pressures on the over-stretched NHS.
Hospices are also working with hospitals to prevent emergency admissions. For instance by providing care at home, or advice and support through dedicated helplines that can help ensure more people are supported in the place setting that best meets their needs.
For example, a partnership betweenPeace Hospice Care, The Hospice of St Francis, Rennie Grove Hospice Care and Hertfordshire Community NHS Trust led to the development of the Palliative Care Referral Centre for healthcare professionals. The centre provides one simple, centralised system for all palliative care referrals, increasing efficiency to ensure that patients are assessed more quickly than in the past and helping widen access to care.
Tackling the crisis in the NHS requires the whole health and care system to work together, including services provided by the voluntary sector. With proper support from the NHS, hospices could have a great deal to offer.