Persistent pressures in the health sector were highlighted in last quarterly results from NHS Improvement, released in February. The 3.5% rise in A&E admissions and 28.1% increase in delayed patient discharge show that hospitals are simply being overwhelmed.
Hospitals are a barometer on how the health service is coping and, given the mounting pressures over the winter, there is every indication that the NHS is failing to do this. The impact of this has taken its toll on services.
NHS staff have done a remarkable job in trying to keep services going while also delivering over £2bn of efficiency savings so far, reducing the total year to date expenditure by 3.3%, as the Q3 NHS Improvement report shows. However, the strain of social care cuts has hit the NHS and our workforce is being pushed to the limit. The most recent King’s Fund report showed that 70% of trusts increased staffing levels to prepare for increased pressure on services during the winter; it would have proved difficult to do this while trying to reduce spending on agency staff.
The financial position of the NHS is a continuing source of media attention, albeit within some positive and balanced views on the difficulties it faces. The BBC delivered a detailed account of the various aspects in its NHS Health Check series, including social care services and A&E waiting times.
It’s important that members of the public are well informed about the complex issues facing the NHS. However, an understanding of the whole sector is essential to fully grasp why the NHS is facing these challenges and what can be done about them.
For example, expenditure on foreign patients has been highlighted in the media for some time. While charges to overseas patients need to be considered, addressing these costs is small in relation to the scale of the financial problem and will not be a quick fix to the NHS’s financial shortfall. It’s important that the public understand the cost of treating overseas patients within the larger context. Cost efficiencies in this area are welcome and necessary, but they are unlikely to make a large impression on the overall £22bn funding gap that the NHS needs to bridge. A real representation of this in context in the media is needed.
The NHS is under severe financial pressure and directors of finance have seen this coming for a while. However, it is not just a finance issue that finance people alone can rectify – the entire service needs to work together, under strong leadership, to transform the current situation. It’s important the media refrain from scaremongering but, instead, provide a reality check on the pressures the NHS is under and expected to deliver against.
We welcome any exploration into the UK’s health system that will help to make it fit for purpose for the future – and that will take the public on this journey too.