To hear Jeremy Hunt tell it, there’s nothing but good news for the NHS these days. Last week we were invited to look forward to a future health service where the nurses take Zumba classes and the patients update their own medical records via FitBit.
Just like the frequently promised, never delivered “seven day NHS”, it’s not immediately clear what any of this is actually supposed to achieve beyond a couple of days’ worth of headlines.
The real news in recent days, although the headlines might have missed it, tells a different story.
Last Wednesday Dods Research published the results of a survey which asked NHS staff how many believed it was possible for the service to meet a Government-imposed target of saving £22 billion over the next five years. The numbers, to put it mildly, were not encouraging for the Government.
Only 4% of NHS staff believe it is possible to save £22 billion. This confirms my own suspicions. I have yet to meet a single health professional who shares the breezy confidence of Jeremy Hunt and Simon Stevens, the Chief Executive of NHS England.
A few weeks ago, when Stevens appeared before the Health Committee for questioning, I pressed him to be more specific about how he expected the NHS to meet this unprecedented target. His answer seemed much more like a description of an ideal world than anything that might reasonably be expected to happen over the next five years.
In short, his answer was for more care to be shifted away from hospitals, where costs are highest, and into the community where, the thinking goes, more can be done to treat emerging health problems at an earlier stage and to prevent people from becoming unwell in the first place.
The implication of this approach is that a substantial amount of the care that is currently provided in hospitals should be shunted over to GPs. But what should be immediately obvious – at least to anyone who’s tried to see their own GP recently – is that this assumption completely out of step with reality.
The fact is that GPs are over-worked, under-funded and spread too thinly. They now carry out between them more than a million consultations every single day – 150,000 more than just five years ago, when the number of GPs was roughly the same and their share of the health budget was significantly higher.
And to make matters worse, the latest news is that the proportion of health spending which goes to GP services has fallen again, for the third year in a row. The combined pressures of higher demand, greater complexity and inadequate resources have led thousands of GPs to exhaustion, or worse. Many have resigned, leading in my constituency to the closure of three surgeries within the space of a single month. Witnessing this, medical students are increasingly turning away from a career as a GP, making the Government’s promise to recruit an additional 5,000 a fantasy.
It simply defies logic that GPs should get less than 10% of NHS funding while delivering 90% of patient care. If the Tories want us to believe a word they say about the health service, this needs to change as a matter of urgency. I look forward to making this point to Jeremy Hunt when he comes before the Health Committee next week. I’m sure he can’t wait.