Over the past fifteen years the NHS has dramatically improved. Cancer survival is its highest ever. Early deaths from heart disease are down by over 40%. Avoidable deaths overall are down by 20%. About 160,000 more nurses, doctors and other clinicians are treating millions more patients so that most long waits for operations have been slashed – down from 18 months to 18 weeks. Mixed sex wards and shabby hospital buildings have been tackled. Public satisfaction with the NHS has nearly doubled.
Over the past five years – despite global recession and austerity – the NHS has generally been successful in responding to a growing population, an ageing population, and a sicker population, as well as new drugs and treatments and cuts in local councils’ social care. Protected NHS funding has helped, as has the shared commitment and dedication of health service staff – on one measure the health service has become £20 billion more efficient.
No health system anywhere in the world in recent times has managed five years of little or no real growth without either increasing charges, cutting services or cutting staff. The NHS has been a remarkable exception. What’s more, transparency about quality has helped care improve, and new research programmes like the 100,000 genomes initiative are putting this country at the forefront of global health research. The Commonwealth Fund has just ranked us the highest performing health system of 11 industrialised countries.
Of course the NHS is far from perfect. Some of the fundamental challenges facing us are common to all industrialised countries’ health systems:
- Changes in patients’ health needs and personal preferences. Long term health conditions – rather than illnesses susceptible to a one-off cure – now take 70% of the health service budget. At the same time many (but not all) people wish to be more informed and involved with their own care, challenging the traditional divide between patients and professionals, and offering opportunities for better health through increased prevention and supported self-care.
- Changes in treatments, technologies and care delivery. Technology is transforming our ability to predict, diagnose and treat disease. New treatments are coming on stream. And we know, both from examples within the NHS and internationally, that there are better ways of organising care, breaking out of the artificial boundaries between hospitals and primary care, between health and social care, between generalists and specialists—all of which get in the way of care that is genuinely coordinated around what people need and want.
- Changes in health services funding growth. Given the after-effects of the global recession, most western countries will continue to experience budget pressures over the next few years, and it is implausible to think that over this period NHS spending growth could return to the 6%-7% real annual increases seen in the first decade of this century.
Some of the improvements we need over the next five years are more specific to England. In mental health and learning disability services. In faster diagnosis and more uniform treatment for cancer. In readily accessible GP services. In prevention and integrated health and social care. There are still unacceptable variations of care provided to patients, which can have devastating effects on individuals and their families, as the inexcusable events at Mid-Staffordshire and Winterbourne View laid bare.
One possible response to these challenges would be to attempt to muddle through the next few years, relying on short term expedients to preserve
services and standards. Our view is that this is not a sustainable strategy because it would over time inevitably lead to three widening gaps:
The health and wellbeing gap: if the nation fails to get serious about prevention then recent progress in healthy life expectancies will stall, health inequalities will widen, and our ability to fund beneficial new treatments will be crowded-out by the need to spend billions of pounds on wholly avoidable illness.
The care and quality gap: unless we reshape care delivery, harness technology, and drive down variations in quality and safety of care, then patients’ changing needs will go unmet, people will be harmed who should have been cured, and unacceptable variations in outcomes will persist.
The funding and efficiency gap: if we fail to match reasonable funding levels with wide-ranging and sometimes controversial system efficiencies, the result will be some combination of worse services, fewer staff, deficits, and restrictions on new treatments.
We believe none of these three gaps is inevitable. A better future is possible – and with the right changes, right partnerships, and right investments we know how to get there.
That’s because there is broad consensus on what that future needs to be. It is a future that empowers patients to take much more control over their own care and treatment. It is a future that dissolves the classic divide, set almost in stone since 1948, between family doctors and hospitals, between physical and mental health, between health and social care, between prevention and treatment. One that no longer sees expertise locked into often out-dated buildings, with services fragmented, patients having to visit multiple professionals for multiple appointments, endlessly repeating their details because they use separate paper records. One organised to support people with multiple health conditions, not just single diseases. A future that sees far more care delivered locally but with some services in specialist centres where that clearly produces better results. One that recognises that we cannot deliver the necessary change without investing in our current and future workforce.
The rest of this Forward View sets out what that future will look like, and how together we can bring it about. Chapter two – the next chapter – outlines some of the action needed to tackle the health and wellbeing gap. Chapter three sets out radical changes to tackle the care and quality gap. Chapter four focuses on options for meeting the funding and efficiency challenge.
Box 1: Five year ambitions on quality
The definition of quality in health care, enshrined in law, includes three key aspects: patient safety, clinical effectiveness and patient experience. A high quality health service exhibits all three. However, achieving all three ultimately happens when a caring culture, professional commitment and strong leadership are combined to serve patients, which is why the Care Quality Commission is inspecting against these elements of quality too.
We do not always achieve these standards. For example, there is variation depending on when patients are treated: mortality rates are 11% higher for patients admitted on Saturdays and 16% higher on Sundays compared to a Wednesday. And there is variation in outcomes; for instance, up to 30% variation between CCGs in the health related quality of life for people with more than one long term condition.
We have a double opportunity: to narrow the gap between the best and the worst, whilst raising the bar higher for everyone. To reduce variations in where patients receive care, we will measure and publish meaningful and comparable measurements for all major pathways of care for every provider – including community, mental and primary care – by the end of the next Parliament. We will continue to redesign the payment system so that there are rewards for improvements in quality. We will invest in leadership by reviewing and refocusing the work of the NHS Leadership Academy and NHS Improving Quality. To reduce variations in when patients receive care, we will develop a framework for how seven day services can be implemented affordably and sustainably, recognising that different solutions will be needed in different localities. As national bodies we can do more by measuring what matters, requiring comprehensive transparency of performance data and ensuring this data increasingly informs payment mechanisms and commissioning decisions.