Amongst family and friends I am well-renowned for being an early riser, with a willingness to extol the virtues of making use of the time between 5am and 7am to an effect more rewarding than sleeping. However, this morning my newspaper colleague, the Honourable Columnist for ‘Strictly Speaking’, kept me in bed for an extra hour. Such is the stuff of rumour and gossip. However, before the editor makes room on the front page for a lurid exposé, let me explain that I simply awoke thinking about something my fellow correspondent recently wrote about the NHS. In his article on Thursday 27th October, Hugh Rogers expounded on why he felt confident about the future of the NHS, stating that in this respect ‘pessimism has no place’.
Whilst I am a person of strongly held views, I am always willing to consider the possibility that I have got something wrong. With this is mind, I lay awake pondering my recent proclamations within this column in respect to the current changes the NHS is being subjected to in the form of the Health and Social Care Bill 2011, asking myself whether I have been too pessimistic.
The answer can perhaps be drawn from a trawl of recent news articles regarding GPs (bearing in mind that the majority of medical care in the UK is carried out in general practice and not in hospital). According to a BMA survey, the majority of GPs believe the relationship of trust between them and their patients will be damaged by the NHS reforms. Commissioning will also bring a greater workload to GPs, who are already disenchanted trying to deal with an excessive workload and an administrative nightmare. Additionally, new work makes it harder to fit everything into a ten minute consultation slot, especially as a great deal of the work GPs now do used to be done in hospitals. One answer is to recruit more GPs. However, the evidence suggests that fewer young doctors are being attracted into general practice (this August there was an 11% fall in doctors accepted onto GP training courses compared to 2009); on top of which it takes ten years to train a GP from scratch, so increasing medical student training may help in a decade’s time, but doesn’t answer today’s problem. Then we have the suggestion that the government wants to do away with practice boundaries, so patients can see a doctor anywhere they wish. This may be handy for minor acute illnesses, but would be difficult and potentially dangerous for complex issues, apart from making it hard to predict demand for some popular practices.
What about the patients’ perspective? Well, I think everyone knows how hard it is to get an appointment with a GP at present. I am sorry to tell you that the forecast shows that it is going to get worse; a large percentage of GPs over the age of 50 years are actively looking at taking early retirement or going part-time. The reason is low morale, four years of seeing GP pay decrease year on year, government threats to the NHS pension, and a totally skewed work-life balance. Personal health budgets should also raise patients’ concerns. 50,000 people will get personal budgets over the next three years, with a view to rolling it out to more thereafter. These budgets will initially apply to patients with complex medical problems. So what happens when your personal budget runs out? After all, the changes are not just to make the NHS a more efficient service for patients; they are also to reduce the overall cost to the nation. This is further evidenced by the ‘care crisis’ induced by the one fifth cut (£1.3 billion) in government funding for nursing homes at a time when the elderly population is expanding.
I agree with Hugh Rogers that as a nation we tend to triumph at times of adversity. However, I don’t think I am being pessimistic in my expressed views. The evidence is out there and we are unwise to ignore it. Honesty and truth does not equate to pessimism; it is called being realistic.
(First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday, 4th November 2011)