by Dr Murray Ellender

Election fever – NHS in the headlines again

It’s election time again, and the NHS is vying for the spotlight in the campaign debate. The gloves are already off, too. In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth claimed a Labour government would “give the NHS the funding it needs”, as well as giving NHS workers a significant pay rise. Meanwhile his Conservative counterpart, secretary of state for health Jeremy Hunt insisted the NHS would only be strong if Theresa May is elected again to implement Brexit.

So there you have it – Brexit and the NHS dominating the political debate. And if the government is to regain power on 8th June, it cannot afford to ignore people’s concerns about either issue.

In a Healthcare Leader interview where he speaks of ‘dark days for the NHS’, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, Niall Dickson, warned the government not to lose sight of the NHS as it prepares for Brexit. He claimed the whole service is ‘on a precipice’ and warns political leaders against ignoring it.

Talking about his priorities for the role he took over in January, Niall Dickson said his chief aim is to help the NHS move from what is ‘fundamentally a 19th and 20th Century model of healthcare provision towards… a model where care is provided at the right time and people are sustained in as healthy a position as possible.’ But the question is, how? Niall cites access to services as the first problem that must be solved if this aim is to be realised.

“Too many faxes still around’ – the NHS needs to have modern, joined-up systems”

He hits the nail squarely on the head when he says that people should get ‘access quickly to any form of urgent care they require, to any form of elective care, and if they have a mental health problem.’ And it’s true, as he says, that there are ‘too many faxes still around’ – the NHS needs to have modern, joined-up systems that help healthcare professionals to do their jobs and that also help patients help themselves.

Agents for change

STPs were intended to be the major agents for the necessary change, and Niall identifies the need to balance ‘sustainability’ with ‘transformation’ so that the former does not suck up all the funds that the latter will need. He recognises that it’s difficult to create ‘new styles of service’ while keeping existing services going and coping with ever-growing demand.

He also talks convincingly about the problems associated with parity of esteem (where mental health must be given equal priority to physical health), accepting the pressures healthcare professionals are under, while recognising we have to tackle the way mental health can get ‘squeezed’ out by issues that can seem more tangible and immediate.

Let’s take heart, though. One very positive story emerged a few weeks ago, when NHS England announced seven mental health trusts that will pilot digital services aimed at improving care for mental health patients. The trusts, known as Global Digital Exemplars, are to develop remote, mobile and assistive technologies to enable patients to manage their conditions while allowing family and carers to provide the best possible support. The pilot will see £35m from NHS England being matched by the trusts, and in a move that helps address Niall Dickson’s concerns about lack of joined-up care, access to real-time patient records will be available for all professionals involved in a patient’s care.

‘In the age of the smartphone, excellent use of information and technology is fundamental to the transformation of the health and care system.’

At eConsult, we know from experience that digital services can help patients with mental health conditions – many people prefer to ‘talk’ about their symptoms in an online consultation, for example, rather than face to face. Among the pilot schemes is a project by Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation to deliver digital patient services, including online consultation, and we eagerly anticipate positive outcomes, as does Nicola Blackwood, minister for health and innovation, who echoed my own sentiments when she said: ‘In the age of the smartphone, excellent use of information and technology is fundamental to the transformation of the health and care system.’

Niall Davidson will surely feel heartened by initiatives like this, which harness the energy and passion that still undoubtedly exist within the NHS, with an injection of much-needed funding and a targeted project with measurable outcomes. If technology can help us ‘keep the wheels on’ the NHS and transform the system to meet the challenges of the 21st Century, I think it’s a cause for celebration and optimism – whatever the outcome of the general election.