As the National Health Service turned 70 years old in 2018, a healthcare plan set to stretch over the next decade was developed in partnership with staff, patients and families. It was unveiled by the NHS England Chief Executive, Simon Stevens, at the beginning of the new year. Following announcement of a £20.5 billion budget settlement for the NHS by the Prime Minister in the summer of 2018, the Long-Term Plan was launched with the aim of improving the quality of healthcare available to the public, whilst placing greater importance on preventative measures and early intervention.
What are the main points being addressed by the plan?
Improving care at every stage of life.
One major focus of the plan is to provide the best possible care for individuals at every stage of life, from birth through to old age.
Maternity safety is to be a priority, with aims to halve the number of stillbirths as well as maternal and neonatal deaths by 2025.
On top of this, improved support for the elderly population is to be established through personalised care and enhanced primary care services.
Improving care in specific areas.
Two notable areas of healthcare that are to be tackled directly in accordance with the Long-Term Plan are cancer treatment and mental health.
Bids are being made for investment into cancer screening programmes and diagnostic technology, with proposals for the use of genetic testing in children with cancer so that treatments can be tailored specifically to the individual. Importantly, the plan encourages earlier diagnosis so that cancers can be treated at stage 1 or 2 when treatment is more effective and chances of survival are higher.
In what has been described as the “largest expansion of mental health services in a generation.” £2.3 billion in funding is to be invested by 2023- 24. Meanwhile, 350 000 more young people are to be treated and 380 000 more adults given access to talking therapies within the next five years.
Additionally, funds will be allocated towards NHS prevention programmes, targeted at smoking, obesity and alcohol consumption.
Improving patients’ control over their care and reducing strain on healthcare services.
With healthcare services struggling to meet the rising demand for care by an ageing population, a major objective of the plan is to reduce the burden being placed on hospitals.
In light of this, an extra £4.5 billion is to be invested into out-of- hospital services which aim to allow patients to remain healthy at home rather than seeking treatment within healthcare establishments. Health teams within the community will be responsible for providing support to patients at home.
Another major proposal has been expanding the use of digital health services, such that in 5 years access to an online ‘digital’ GP will be standard for patients living in England. Through increased funding for digitally enabled care throughout the NHS, patient records will be accessible to healthcare specialists at all times, and appointments and prescriptions may be handled online. This venture may save patients 30 million hospital trips and thus save the NHS over £1 bn each year.
Whilst the NHS is the biggest employer in Europe, the level of pressure experienced by staff issignificant considering the ever-increasing demands placed on the health sector; in response to this, the plan proposes investment into increased clinical placements as well as doubling the number of volunteers recruited to lessen the strain of the workload.
How likely is the plan to succeed?
Matt Hancock, the Health and Social Care Secretary, stated “Whether it’s treating ever more people in their communities, using the latest technology to tackle preventable diseases, or giving every baby the very best start in life, this government has given the NHS the multi-billion-pound investment needed to nurture and safeguard our nation’s health service for generations to come.”
Health campaigners have expressed similar optimism regarding the Long-Term Plan, and Cancer Research UK has welcomed the emphasis placed on earlier diagnosis. However, despite appreciation for clearly laid out objectives aimed at refinement of the healthcare system, critics have voiced concern regarding the funding and staffing requirements which, if not met, may result in dissolution of the aims.
Nigel Edwards of the Nuffield Trusth as questioned whether the increase in funding actually meets the levels suggested by experts, and further has highlighted the significant shortage of healthcare personnel, without whom the demands of the NHS cannot be met.
In response to questions regarding the 100,000 GP and nurse vacancies throughout the NHS, Mr Hancock stated that such issues would be addressed in separate plans that aredue to be finalised in 2019.
Ministers have been wary of the plan potentially becoming a ‘wish- list’ of unattainable targets in the face of issues such as staff shortage.
Digitalisation of GP appointments is one of the ways in which pressure could be relieved from healthcare professionals. This endeavour would likely resemble the GP at Hand scheme which has already emerged in London, and of which Dr Mobasher Butt, the medical director of the scheme, has said: “This new NHS service makes it easier for patients to see a doctor quickly at anytime and from anywhere and doesn’t cost the NHS a penny.”
Family doctors have, however, warned of the model ‘cherry picking’ healthy patients, whilst being less appropriate for individuals who have complex health issues.
Whilst the 10-year plan set out for the NHS has created objectives for the most challenging aspects of the current healthcare system, issues such as funds and staffing may pose a serious challenge to fulfilment of these aims unless addressed by those in positions of political power. Nonetheless, innovative ventures including digitalisation and genetic screening could open new and exciting avenues into modernised healthcare. It remains to be seen how the Long-Term Plan will unfold as2019 gets underway.
Image credit: Matt Madd via Flickr