As we march on towards the General Election on May 7, it is increasingly clear that for all the puff and bluster about the NHS being a vote winner, none of the main parties have truly connected with the challenges currently facing the country's healthcare system.
There are, it is true, some very appealing parts of the NHS for politicians - especially when speaking in soundbites or posing for shots. It is almost a mantra now, the politician's 'belief' in the NHS, their 'passion' and 'respect' for the service, with much talk about how the NHS would be 'safe in their hands'. Nothing quite says 'let's get down to business' like the rolled up sleeves, tucked in tie and intently furrowed brow of a politician on a ward walkabout.
However, the neatly packaged concepts that have abounded in this long election cycle belie the fact that the NHS is in real danger of slipping down the agenda during any UK election campaign. Both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have committed to, a rather abstract sounding, £8 billion, while Labour has launched an all singing all dancing action plan to 'save the NHS in 100 days'. This snappy policy includes completely repealing the Health and Social Care Act and an immediate pledge to employ 1,000 more nurses, with a view to have 20,000 more by 2020 as well as 8000 new doctors. But just where is this huge new workforce or the majority of funding is to come from hasn't been made clear by anyone.
These aspirational policies to increase the numbers of doctors and nurses are all very well, but what really concerns practitioners is the lack of focus for funding commitments. The Five Year Forward View, produced by NHS England, has set out that £22bn should be found through efficiency savings and that an extra £8bn a year should be the minimum amount of extra funding the NHS receives, assuming the health service can improve its productivity by 2-3% each and every year until 2020/21. But is this productivity truly deliverable year on year in the face of the increasing demands on our already pressurised service? Of course, those at the coalface do understand that funding is, and has to be, limited. We also understand that that the pressures on the NHS are going to be changing as the population ages. All practitioners share the same belief, though, that their specialism must have the resources to continue to develop pioneering techniques, and that this progress must not suffer because of a lack of understanding by politicians and the public about how healthcare really works.
Long term, detailed consultations with Trusts, Clinical Commissioning Groups, and practice units, not to mention professional bodies like BAOMS, are what is really needed to formulate meaningful progress. Sweeping policy changes in every election cycle off the back of ideological beliefs or knee-jerk reactions do little to secure the welfare of patients and staff, or to improve those all important key performance indicators. We need constructive and continuous dialogue between policy makers and the healthcare deliverers; with both sides working together to understand each other's worlds.
The truth is that the NHS really isn't an attractive or easy issue and all the parties know that meaningful, forward-thinking changes, requires the type of long term planning and carefully structured policies which just don't make voters tick. A catchy campaign title, a flash of cash and a dazzling promise may swing voters and may even come from good intentions, but there are no quick fixes. And that is something, it would seem, is always difficult for MPs and the public to understand.
A truly inclusive and honest debate as to the types of support the system needs and how it will be funded must happen sooner rather than later, with politicians recognising that pandering to popularity polls simply can't result in the type of overhaul the NHS needs to address all its challenges. The UK is, by no means, alone as these issues are challenging governments across the world. We are, and rightly so, proud of our NHS, but to continue to provide the extraordinary service is does, we need more than the lip service politicians are prepared to pay at election time.