The last few weeks have been especially busy with the NHS featuring large in my life both in terms of my public role and my private life. I was contacted repeatedly over the festive period by the various national media raising concerns over a struggling NHS. Queues at A & E and growing waiting lists have now become a feature of everyday life in the UK but until recently we didn’t hear much about the problems in GP surgeries. Getting an appointment to see a GP is often difficult and patients regularly wait over a week and in some cases longer for an appointment. This is at the very least inconvenient but according to Dr Helen Lampard-Stokes, the CEO of the Royal College of GPs this delay can also have serious implications for patient safety. She claims that because GP surgeries are struggling to cope with the demand for appointments some patients who require apparently none urgent appointments are sometimes kept waiting for more than 3 weeks. This means that investigations into potentially serious conditions including cancer are being delayed. It is unusual for us to hear the voice of the Royal College of GPs but this Christmas we did and this is a measure of the seriousness of the situation. The Government must listen to the professionals. Demands on GPs have never been greater but funding for their services as a percentage of the total NHS budget has been reduced and it is a fact that 6 years’ worth of cuts to social care budgets has made the problems worse. Added to this the Government’s own minister predicted that funding cuts will lead to the closure of 3000 pharmacies nationwide. Closing community pharmacies will lead to more patients clamouring for a GP appointment.
Our healthcare professionals are at the sharp end but in spite of all the extra challenges they face, they remain extraordinarily dedicated and deserve our gratitude. I had time to reflect on this over the festive period as I sat in a hospital corridor waiting with my elderly mother. The queues for assessment, for treatment and for admission were long. Patients waited on trollies, resigned and all the while paramedics, nurses, doctors, porters etc. all worked flat out, many staying long past their scheduled finish time, all kind, efficient and professional. I know from previous experience, and I’m sure that many of you will also know, that none of this is unusual. This state of affairs is not acceptable. This is not about apportioning blame; it is about accepting in the first place that there is a problem. I know from my work in Parliament during the last two years on the Health Select Committee, visiting medical facilities the length and breadth of the UK and most recently within the Shadow Health Team that the NHS is desperately short of funding and in fact the percentage of GDP per person spent on the NHS in Britain is one of the lowest in Europe. This should tell us something but the crisis is not just one of funding, though the extra £350 million per week promised during the Referendum would be really useful. The second challenge facing the NHS is the fact that the whole service is understaffed and recruitment of qualified health professionals in every department is very difficult. Thirdly the NHS needs to adapt its processes and systems to meet the needs of Britain in the 21st Century. The complex needs of an aging population together with the rapid advances in medical technology mean that the system introduced by the Labour Government in 1948 is no longer fit for purpose in its current form. This is accepted by people from all political parties but the Government still seems to be in denial and is unwilling to provide the necessary funding for transformational improvements to develop a comprehensive National Health and Social Care Service. Investing in the NHS now would not only greatly improve the patient experience but would lead to long term financial savings. The Government’s failure to act is causing unnecessary suffering for millions of people across the country. The elderly, the chronically ill and the mentally ill are bearing the brunt of a `sticking plaster approach` that is little more than crisis management. Surely this situation is unacceptable to all.