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NHS will not be able to cope unless government gets to grip with the social care crisis, warns doctors’ leader

The chair of the British Medical Association has warned that the NHS will not be able to cope unless the government gets to grips with the current social care crisis.

In his New Year message, Dr Mark Porter, highlighted new BMA analysis of Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STPs)1 which shows the scale of cuts facing social care in England.

Previous analysis2 has found that STPs will have to deliver £26bn in cuts by 2020/2021 in order to balance health and social care spending across 44 ‘footprint’ areas, raising serious concerns about cuts to services and the impact on patient care. Areas of particular concern include Greater Manchester, North-West London, and Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, which all need to make saving of more than £1 billion each.

New BMA analysis3 has found that, while cuts to social care amount to £5bn of the overall £26bn that needs to be saved, in some areas cuts to social care are almost as great as those to health care. The social care crisis is already having a knock on effect in the NHS with hospitals struggling to find social care for patients, leading to delayed discharge and bed shortages. In the case of older patients in England, the number of unnecessary days in hospital cost the NHS more than £800 million last year.4

Speaking about STPs, Dr Porter, BMA council chair, said

“Sustainability and transformation plans have revealed a health service that is in fact unsustainable without urgent further investment, and with little capacity to ‘transform’ in any meaningful way other than by closing services on a drastic scale”

“STPs will only succeed if they are realistic, properly funded and have patient care as their priority. Although still in draft form the majority do not appear to meet these objectives.”

In his message, Dr Porter stressed that the NHS will not be able to cope unless the government addresses the social care crisis:  

“STPs are meant to bring health and social care together, and in a grim kind of way they do. It is clear from many STPs that each is desperately trying to prop up the other, their crutches cracking under the weight.

“We have recently analysed social care’s share of the impending shortfall. In many areas, this is more than a quarter of the total, with combined deficits running into billions of pounds. It comes as social care is being cut in real terms, and the situation may worsen.

“When social care is on its knees, patients suffer delayed transfers, and the personal and financial cost is vast. We have found a correlation – as you’d expect – between the STP areas with the highest social care deficit and those with the highest proportion of delayed transfers for social reasons. With several STPs, including Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent, proposing to cut hospital beds these problems are only going to be exacerbated.

“The British Geriatrics Society describes delayed transfers as ‘personally disastrous for elderly patients who are frail’. And it is not only older patients who are affected.

“Hospital doctors know that the surgical wards can fill up with medical patients because there are no other beds. So, the medical patients do not receive optimal care, and the elective patients are postponed. Two sets of patients facing needless suffering.”

At a time when the NHS is struggling to cope with increasing demand, Dr Porter questioned the reduction in the number of hospital beds across England:

A recent BBC report5 found nearly half a million patients in England waiting for more than four hours after emergency admission, an almost five-fold increase in five years.

“The beds they are waiting for have been taken away in the name of cost-cutting and efficiency. According to the OECD6 the UK has fewer than half the beds of France and a third of Germany’s, per person – a difference in magnitude that cannot be explained away on definitions. That means daily, around the country, we have bed occupancy figures touching 100 per cent, one of the few NHS statistics that does. It’s a measure of ‘efficiency’ that is anything but efficient, and wreaks havoc with efforts to control infections and ensure patients are given the care they need.

“The Nuffield Trust7 has linked high bed occupancy with longer waiting times before admission, distress for patients as they are more likely to be moved around a hospital, and a greater risk of infection.”

Looking back at 2016, Dr Porter accused the government of ignoring the funding crisis facing the NHS and misusing funding figures:

He said:

“The chancellor, health secretary and prime minister have, at various points referred to a £10 billion increase in English NHS spending in this parliament.

“The ‘£10 billion’ actually equates to a £4.5 billion increase in overall health spending8.

“The health secretary said ‘whether you call it £4.5 billion or £10 billion, it doesn't matter’9, I disagree. While any increase in health funding is welcome and desperately needed, this is the government taking credit for work they haven’t done and money they haven’t found. It corrupts the public debate. You also never hear them acknowledge how much of the ‘new’ money is being used to bail out trusts which are crippled by unworkable efficiency targets.

“We need a government that is willing to own its share of the challenges, not one that is obsessed with owning the headlines.”

 Dr Porter also addressed the Brexit negotiations, calling for doctors and NHS staff from the EU to be respected and not just seen as ‘negotiating chips’.

Reflecting on the impact of Brexit on the thousands of doctors in the NHS from the EU, he said:

“In October, they were described by one cabinet member as one of the government’s ‘main cards’ in Brexit negotiations. So, to their patients they save lives, relieve pain and bring kindness and reassurance, but, to this politician at least, they are just negotiating chips.

“It’s a government that seems more interested in telling a bemused public whether its Brexit is hard, soft, red, white or blue than in looking its own health workers in the eye and telling them they’re valued, and that it will do everything it can to make them welcome and secure in their jobs. It is putting ludicrous slogans ahead of real people.” ENDS

Notes to editor:

The British Medical Association (BMA) is the voice of doctors and medical students in the UK. It is an apolitical professional organisation and independent trade union, representing doctors and medical students from all branches of medicine across the UK and supporting them to deliver the highest standards of care.

1/ https://www.england.nhs.uk/ourwork/futurenhs/deliver-forward-view/stp/

2/ https://www.bma.org.uk/news/2016/november/discovery-of-cut-plans-adds-pressure-to-fix-stps

3/ https://www.bma.org.uk/news/2016/december/transfer-of-care-delays-threaten-to-capsize-the-nhs

4/ https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Discharging-older-patients-from-hospital.pdf

5/ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-38228411

6/ https://data.oecd.org/healtheqt/hospital-beds.htm

7/ http://www.nuffieldtrust.org.uk/blog/winter-insight-beds-pressures

8/ https://www.bma.org.uk/connecting-doctors/b/the-bma-blog/posts/fully-funded-nhs

9/ https://www.bma.org.uk/news/2016/october/10bn-45bn-whatever-the-governments-nhs-funding-policy

Full text of New Year Message:

The word of 2016, according to Oxford Dictionaries, is ‘post-truth’.

Whatever your political views, it’s not difficult to see the dangers of a world in which – as the dictionary puts it – ‘objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

Now, there is no shortage of emotion or personal belief in the National Health Service, and it would be a much-diminished place without it. I’ve known patients whose treatment was so technologically advanced that at the time I qualified it would have seemed like a fantasy – but it was the reassurance and empathy that they most remembered.

But that reassurance would not have been so kind if given in the face of a devastating prognosis. Knowledge matters. Facts are not the opposite of feelings – you need both – and basing our actions on sound clinical evidence is both a necessity and a kindness. And we will never ‘have had enough’ of experts, thank you very much.

We have, however, had quite enough of post-truth politics. Remember that promise, daubed on the side of a bus, of an extra £350 million a week if Britain voted to leave the European Union? A promise made by leading politicians which was never meant to be kept, and which they had themselves disowned within days of the referendum.

That sparkling gem of mendacity aside, I think the biggest threat to the NHS comes not from conscious deceit, but from the persistent, blinkered denial of a truth that is obvious to anyone outside government.

For years now, the very enormity of the deficit faced by the health service seems to have made it easier to ignore, rather than a matter of national importance. We could all conjure images of columns of pound coins reaching up towards the moon, but it was to the government just another large and depressing number to dismiss – one amongst many.

Ministers spoke blithely of efficiency savings, but found those ‘efficiencies’ only in penalising staff with real-terms pay cuts and reducing payments to providers that plunged hospitals into record deficits.

This year, health and social care providers across England were charged with finding a solution. Their STPs (sustainability and transformation plans) have revealed a health service that is in fact unsustainable without urgent further investment, and with little capacity to ‘transform’ in any meaningful way other than by closing services on a drastic scale.

Our own analysis has found they must cut £26 billion from health and social care costs within five years. Greater Manchester, north-west London and Hampshire and Isle of Wight face falling into the red by more than £1 billion each.

More big numbers, but they are much harder to ignore or deny when attached to the names of hospitals and GP practices that thousands of patients use every day.

As we have made clear, STPs will only succeed if they are realistic, properly funded and have patient care as their priority. Although still in draft form the majority do not appear to meet these objectives.

The health secretary speaks of ‘challenges’ and ‘bumps in the road’ with STPs. (EMBED LINK: http://www.gponline.com/stps-vital-future-nhs-jeremy-hunt-tells-health-leaders/article/1415100). Something of an understatement perhaps. The councillor charged with scrutinising health in Birmingham puts it rather differently: ‘Although the social care financial gap is included within the plan, which is welcome, there is no indication of how this gap will be closed.’ This was precisely what STPs were supposed to do, but it is too often an impossible task with current levels of funding.

STPs are meant to bring health and social care together, and in a grim kind of way they do. It is clear from many STPs that each is desperately trying to prop up the other, their crutches cracking under the weight.

We have recently analysed (LINK to come) social care’s share of the impending shortfall. In many areas, this is more than a quarter of the total, with combined deficits running into billions of pounds. It comes as social care is being cut in real terms, and the situation may worsen.

When social care is on its knees, patients suffer delayed transfers, and the personal and financial cost is vast. We have found a correlation – as you’d expect – between the STP areas with the highest social care deficit and those with the highest proportion of delayed transfers for social reasons. With several STPs, including Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent, proposing to cut hospital beds these problems are only going to be exacerbated.

The British Geriatrics Society describes delayed transfers as ‘personally disastrous for elderly patients who are frail’. And it is not only older patients who are affected.

Hospital doctors know that the surgical wards can fill up with medical patients because there are no other beds. So, the medical patients do not receive optimal care, and the elective patients are postponed. Two sets of patients facing needless suffering.

Throughout the UK, it is the same story. An Audit Scotland report in October found that, as in previous years, NHS spending was not keeping pace with demand. Most performance targets had been missed.

In Wales, the Health Foundation predicted a £700 million deficit within three years – more than 10 per cent of this year’s NHS budget. The Welsh Government’s increase in health spending was therefore welcome and necessary, but is unlikely to be sufficient.

 In Northern Ireland, there is an unprecedented number of unfilled consultant posts due to a lack of investment and proper planning.

This is not the counsel of despair. There are solutions at hand. In Northern Ireland, my colleagues have welcomed the findings of the Bengoa review which sets out key ideas for a more sustainable, patient and population-centred model of health and social care. They will be monitoring very closely whether their government implements the changes for which it calls.

The problem is that all too often, politicians slide sinuously past the truth for the truest thing they have to say without it being provably false. Let me give you an example. The chancellor, health secretary and prime minister have, at various points referred to a £10 billion increase in English NHS spending in this parliament.

As we have demonstrated, the ‘£10 billion’ actually equates to a £4.5 billion increase in overall health spending.

The health secretary said ‘whether you call it £4.5 billion or £10 billion, it doesn't matter’. I disagree. While any increase in health funding is welcome and desperately needed, this is the government taking credit for work they haven’t done and money they haven’t found. It corrupts the public debate. You also never hear them acknowledge how much of the ‘new’ money is being used to bail out trusts which are crippled by unworkable efficiency targets.

We need a government that is willing to own its share of the challenges, not one that is obsessed with owning the headlines.

It is just possible to see positive change here. At the beginning of the year, the government was still lumbering on with its self-defeating rhetoric that doctors were a ‘road block’ to improving the consistency of care across the week. It was an argument that should never have happened and that the government was never going to win, as it pitted a baseless accusation against the reality of tens of thousands of doctors delivering high quality care every evening and weekend.

The tone of recent discussions has been more constructive. At a symposium we held last month, I set out the efforts, led by the profession and over many years, to improve clinical standards throughout the week and ensure the right care, to the right quality, is delivered by the right people at the right time. The health secretary, who was at the event, acknowledged these efforts. We agree about the high standards of care we want to offer patients – how, indeed, could we not be?

What we now need the government to accept – and this should be equally uncontroversial – is that, if it truly wants consistently high standards, it will get the health service it is willing to pay for.

A recent BBC report found nearly half a million patients in England waiting for more than four hours after emergency admission, an almost five-fold increase in five years.

The beds they are waiting for have been taken away in the name of cost-cutting and efficiency. According to the OECD, the UK has fewer than half the beds of France and a third of Germany’s, per person – a difference in magnitude that cannot be explained away on definitions. That means daily, around the country, we have bed occupancy figures touching 100 per cent, one of the few NHS statistics that does. It’s a measure of ‘efficiency’ that is anything but efficient, and wreaks havoc with efforts to control infections and ensure patients are given the care they need.

The Nuffield Trust has linked high bed occupancy with longer waiting times before admission, distress for patients as they are more likely to be moved around a hospital, and a greater risk of infection. Governments that take responsibility, that consider the evidence and act on it, enable patients to receive better care. It’s easy to be cynical but I’ve never known a government in any part of the UK that didn’t ultimately want to achieve that.

Sadly, this lesson is more often proved in the negative than the positive. GPs in Northern Ireland, like GPs across the UK, are facing an ever-increasing workload, reduced funding and an out-of-hours system under great strain. Their government has failed to respond with the appropriate level of resources, in a country which already has the lowest number of GPs per head than any in the UK. The result – hundreds of GPs indicating they would be willing to submit undated resignations. As every doctor knows, ignoring an acute and worsening diagnosis rarely makes a situation better.

In England, we have seen a government refuse to meet its responsibility to provide a working environment for junior doctors in which they have confidence. A clear majority of junior doctors voted against its plans for a new contract, and the government’s decision to impose it is a self-defeating squandering of goodwill on an unprecedented scale.

If the government thinks it can press on regardless without worsening the long-term damage to the morale of the medical workforce, it is living in a fantasy world. Indeed, recent surveys from both the Royal College of Physicians and the GMC have confirmed that junior doctors are being left demoralised, sleep-deprived and forced to miss essential training.

During the contract negotiations, there were many areas where the government could not be persuaded of measures that were in the best interests of both junior doctors and patient care, but we were able to achieve a new system of exception reporting.

This enables junior doctors in England to raise any instance where their actual work varies from what they are scheduled, and paid to do. It includes one-off situations and more systemic problems.

As a foundation doctor, Martha Martin, recently wrote on our website, ‘statements about working over hours or while under-staffed will no longer be anecdotal but rooted in hard evidence’.

This has the potential to be a safeguard and an early warning system, and shock employers or the government out of any delusions about working hours to which they may succumb. The more that junior doctors use it when their hours are in variance, and report those inconvenient truths, the more effective it will be. And senior hospital doctors must encourage and allow this to happen. It’s also about employers showing junior doctors the respect they deserve when they raise concerns.

Another large and highly committed group of doctors who deserve a similar respect are the 30,000 who received their primary qualification in another European Economic Area country.

In October, they were described by one cabinet member as one of the government’s ‘main cards’ in Brexit negotiations. So, to their patients they save lives, relieve pain and bring kindness and reassurance, but, to this politician at least, they are just negotiating chips.

It’s a government that seems more interested in telling a bemused public whether its Brexit is hard, soft, red, white or blue than in looking its own health workers in the eye and telling them they’re valued, and that it will do everything it can to make them welcome and secure in their jobs. It is putting ludicrous slogans ahead of real people.

This has been a profoundly unsettling time for all overseas doctors. Mr Hunt, to his credit, has been supportive of doctors from EU countries, but offers much less security to the tens of thousands who trained in other countries. Instead, in his speech to the Conservative Party conference in October, he created the impression to many that, while their contribution was welcome, they were now just a stopgap until the extra 1,500 medical places he has announced leads to self-sufficiency.

There are so many practical problems with that plan that he has left unanswered but even more important is the basic truth he has overlooked, which is that the contribution of overseas-trained doctors to the NHS is so very much more than numerical. Without them, I doubt we would even have a functioning NHS, and even if we did, I wouldn’t want to work in it. We are all enriched by the wonderful diversity of the NHS workforce.

The BMA is currently surveying international medical graduates to ask about the impact of the referendum result and to help us enhance the services we offer them as members.

When we talk about evidence, and good data, it’s all too often from the perspective of arming ourselves against the opposite, and the harm that supposition, prejudice and hollow rhetoric do to our profession and the care we provide.

But if you want to see what clear, evidence-based information can achieve away from these tiresome battles, then I’d urge you to consider one of the many achievements of our company, the BMJ.

You’ll know of course of the British Medical Journal, which, for more than 175 years, has established itself as one of the world’s leading sources of medical education and informed decision-making. But the journal is just one part of a global information group which supports the improvement of medical standards worldwide.

Recently, with the University of Cape Town, it has launched the PACK (Practical Approach to Care Kit) Global Adult (LINK when available). Designed to be used by primary healthcare workers in developing countries, it includes a guide for managing symptoms and diagnosing conditions, and is based on WHO guidelines and the best available evidence.

Previously used in South Africa, it is now hoped that this clear, rigorous approach can empower healthcare workers and improve clinical standards in other parts of the world too.

It really is very simple. Evidence saves lives. The only place you can go without evidence – or ‘post truth’ – is one where patients are harmed. We’ll stick with the facts – they serve our patients well.

For more information please contact 0207 383 6448     or [email protected]

For further information please contact:

British Medical Association, BMA House, Tavistock Square, London, WC1H 9JP
Telephone: 020 7383 6448 
Email: [email protected]
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