Last year was not great for the NHS. Between the and managerial scandals at hospitals across the country, a fresh start is badly needed. Unfortunately, 2015 hasn’t offered this – instead 15 A&E departments have already declared ‘major incident’ status as they struggle to accommodate patient numbers. With the General Election this year, the battle for votes will certainly shape the NHS in some way or another. But what are the actual needs of the NHS – and will they be met?
The answer varies according to which politician you ask. Last September, Ed Miliband pledged to increase the NHS budget by £2.5 billion – a statement followed swiftly by the realisation that it would take at least two years in office to find that kind of money. David Cameron pledged to maintain the budget and protect it from any further cuts, a likely story given the Conservatives’ overall spending plans. And Farage? Well, his strategy was to complain that we should get rid of any doctors who don’t speak English very well.
Despite promises of reform neither Cameron nor Miliband actually presented any precise policies for reform. Cameron continually quoted statistics in a desperate attempt to prove he has made improvements. Miliband continually used the NHS as a “political football”, to quote Cameron. Neither of these methods seem particularly conducive for the waiting lists in A&Es across the country, nor solving wider structural issues.
What the NHS needs, first and foremost, is political solidarity. The two leading parties have been criticised for having increasingly similar policies, however, where the NHS is involved, this isn’t a bad thing, though. Unity and stability are, after all, what it needs. Such a large organisation does not respond well to turnabout changes every time a new party is elected, driven primarily by the need for votes rather than common sense. In PMQs, Cameron stated that the NHS in England (which he controls) is doing better than that of Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. Yet is the NHS not a service of the United Kingdom? Without regional and overarching consistency, the NHS is likely to continue to suffer.
What we need is for politicians to address the specifics, not how much money is being poured in and where, but the actual methods of improvement. A lot of the demand is coming from the ageing population, and solutions must respond directly to this. The government could aim to incentivise doctors to enter pressured specialities such as A&E, oncology and orthopaedic surgery (all of which cater significantly to an elderly population). To help with this, foreign medical students should be encouraged to stay in the country, contrary to Theresa May’s recent proposals. The UK has some of the world’s best medical schools and it has been consistently shown that students trained here, whatever their nationality, outperform others in exams for entrance to professional bodies such as the Royal College of Surgeons.
A little more support for physicians themselves wouldn’t hurt either. After all, along with patients, doctors are experiencing the strain first hand. Take NHS 111: the majority of doctors will tell you that replacing a triage nurse with a call handler is flawed. 71 per cent of GPs actually voted that they had no confidence in the directive. The reason why is obvious: common symptoms like shortness of breath could be signs of conditions as varied as panic attacks and heart failure. Is it really possible for someone to judge over the phone which it could be?
More importantly, however, the NHS badly needs structural reform which will divert it from its current path towards privatisation: profit has no business in national healthcare. Why should a third of contracts for provision of NHS services have been offered to the private sector in the first place? It destroys public confidence that the treatment patients are receiving is in their best interest. Instead, it suggests that the treatment was offered because it is particularly well-funded by some private company. The recent collapse of Hinchingbrooke Hospital management under private company Circle shows the real risks of hospitals run as Private Finance Initiatives (PFI).
The NHS is caught in a tangled web of politics and economics, a combination which sadly rarely leads to better patient care. I don’t envy our government for having to find a solution to a problem so complex. But in order to do so, they need to recall the founding principle upon which the NHS was created in 1948 – offering healthcare that was free at the point of service, funded 100 per cent from taxation. If we, public and politicians alike, cling to this one notion, then surely something can be salvaged from this current critical state. As it stands, however, 7th May does not seem to be the light at the end of the tunnel the NHS so badly needs, but rather a darkening horizon, regardless of the electoral outcome. If things go on down the current path, whoever wins, the health service loses.