David Newell, Director of Health at Gemserv, believes the appointment of a new health secretary at Westminster offers an opportunity to take stock and look at the changes needed to build a sustainable NHS for the future.
The recent appointment of Sajid Javid as the new Health & Social Care Secretary comes at a crucial moment for the NHS and for the provision of care across the country.
The vaccines programme has changed the way we deal with coronavirus and it would appear has broken the link between infections and severe cases that require hospitalisation.
As we prepare to move back toward normal, now is an ideal time to take stock. Not just in the way that the health service is handling the pandemic, but also in the wider structural and operational reforms that are necessary to keep the NHS fit for the 21st century and achieve the rapid progress needed on sustainability.
As a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Javid will recognise the link between health and wealth. The faster we recover, the bigger the impact of that economic recovery will be on the nation’s health.
For individuals, having fairly paid jobs is key to affording the food, heating, and housing to keep families healthy and economically active. For our nation, having more people in work generates the tax base that we need to fund our NHS and to pay back the debt accumulated during the pandemic.
That economic growth – and the benefits it will bring for people’s health – needs to be targeted across our country. Only last week, data showed that the death rate from coronavirus was 25% higher in Greater Manchester than for the nation on average, underlining that the underlying determinants of health were magnified by the pandemic.
The key is increasing investment to the wellness agenda and in doing so changing the supply and demand curve – reducing demand must be the underlying objective. By focusing on preventing diseases and illnesses in the first place rather than on more costly treatments, money will be freed-up to tackle ailments caused by our genes rather than our lifestyles- one key element of achieving a sustainable health service.
Learning from the pandemic
It’s essential that we learn from the pandemic and use digital transformation to put the patient at the centre of service design. The NHS has shown that it can accelerate digital transformation when the chips are down, putting services in place within a few days or weeks that in the past would have taken months or even years.
Data and digital technology have been at the heart of the research programmes that have identified treatments and vaccines for Covid-19. The impressive speed at which those vaccines have been rolled out is also down to harnessing digital technology, planning distribution and appointments in the most efficient manner.
To accelerate the digital transformation, we need to rebuild the public’s trust in how the NHS handles data. The health service needs to communicate clearly with the public about how it will use data and the benefits it will bring in treating conditions and illnesses.
The delay to rolling out NHS Digital’s General Practice Data for Planning & Research (GPDPR) in England and the launch of the data strategy are the perfect opportunities. Winning over doctors and other frontline healthcare workers must be the first step, so that they can then become advocates when they speak to their patients.
Building back better
Only last week, 34 people died in Vancouver as a direct result of climate change; the heatwaves scouring Canada and the United States are just one instance of how the climate emergency is already affecting healthcare. On the current path, our NHS will miss its own green target and, as a result, so will the UK as a whole – that cannot be allowed to continue.
A recent study estimates the NHS in England now accounts for around 7% of the UK’s total carbon footprint. Its emissions have fallen by around a quarter in the past two decades which is a significant achievement, but there is much progress still needed if the NHS is to meet its 2045 net-zero target.
Building a sustainable NHS must be the long-term goal. Digital technology can again play a role, with smart grids to help control energy efficiency within hospitals and other facilities, as well as harnessing renewable energy to generate power on-site and feed any excess into the wider electricity network.
Hospitals and other NHS sites need to be linked into wider planning for electric vehicle charging infrastructure and perhaps district heating systems to generate low-carbon heat and water for their buildings and even their neighbourhoods.
However, the scale of emissions reduction needed means decarbonising transport and heat will only take the NHS part-way on the journey.
Some 80% of the cuts now required will have to come from how the NHS delivers care, the model of care chosen, and the pathways used. With an emphasis on patient centric care closer to a patient’s home where possible rather than in hospitals or as effectively as possible the next wave of digital hospitals.
We at Gemserv have significant experience in delivering Net Zero, implementing service redesign and driving digital transformation. These skills and experience will play an important role to help the NHS achieve such a radical shift.
Building a healthcare system that’s sustainable, efficient, and effective, will not only bring health benefits but also wider economic and environmental gains. This will create an NHS of which we can all be proud, post-pandemic.
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