The health service will emerge stronger and better prepared to face the next pandemicby Roger Jones / June 2, 2020 / Leave a comment
Before coronavirus knocked the world off its axis, many healthcare systems, including the NHS, were facing major difficulties. These included rapidly rising levels of non-communicable diseases (for example, the care of diabetes now accounts for 10 per cent of NHS expenditure), co-morbidity—the majority of people over the age of 75 have three or more significant chronic illnesses—and an ageing population, with more than five million over-75s in the UK. At the end of 2019, the NHS had serious problems. A recruitment, retention and morale crisis across the service meant that hospital duty rotas were riddled with gaps, general practices were closing down, and waiting times in accident and emergency departments and for hospital outpatients were escalating. Little wonder that one of the first slogans to emerge in the crisis was “Protect the NHS.”
In the event, the response by health service and care workers at every level, accompanied by an astonishing level of public support, has been little short of miraculous. The professional and public reaction to coronavirus demonstrated the depth and strength of support for the NHS, although this has scarcely been matched by the fumbling management of the crisis at the highest levels of government and health sciences. Frontline NHS staff deserved better. The carnage in care homes is a tragedy of its own.
However, the pandemic has undoubtedly jolted the NHS into adopting and developing new ways of working which are likely to become embedded, with considerable benefits for the service in the future. It will be astonishing if the post-mortems on the pandemic do not reveal the need for major organisational and policy changes.
First, technology. The New York Times described the adoption of telemedicine in the UK as “10 years of change in one week.” The NHS, chronically averse to adopting new technologies, suddenly found that technological alternatives to face-to-face GP consultations or outpatient visits are not only feasible, they may be preferred by patients and have advantages over traditional ways of working. Before coronavirus, only a minority of GP appointments and very few hospital appointments were conducted by telephone or video link: this has now become routine. Screen time cannot substitute for physical contact and examination in certain cases, but savings of travel time, time off work, waiting room delays and the associated costs of all these are…