Leaving aside the question of whether the NHS has a ‘humanitarian crisis‘, which sounds apocalyptic, there’s much about the current state of the NHS which is based in long-standing problems. The first problem is the lack of spare capacity in the hospitals. The effect of insisting that beds have to be fully occupied is to create inflexibility and bottlenecks.
However, the problems which show themselves in the hospitals are not necessarily problems which can be addressed through the hospitals. The second key issue has been the retrenchment of social care. Social Services Departments, or Adult Care Departments, have radically reduced the scope of their involvement with the public: figures are difficult to find, but between 2008 and 2013 the numbers of people being served fell by a quarter.
The third problem has been an apparent failure of GP coverage. This is puzzling because the figures seem to imply the opposite. Currently there are 5.8 GPs per 1000 patients per practice. That averages out to just over 1700 people per GP, in the worst cases rising above 2300. When I started in this game the ratio of GPs to patients used to be 2200, in some areas going up to 3500, and that was in the days when GPs also had to come out at night. However, there appear to be more people on GP lists overall than there are in the population – suggesting that general practices and CCGs are not very good at keeping their records up to date, possibly because it’s not in their interests to do so. I’ve also not been able to find respectable figures for how many people are not registered with any local GP, which may be marginal (the same people are less likely to get access to any health care) but is potentially important in the demand for direct access to A and E.
It’s understandable that the government is focusing on GPs, because it’s the most immediate response that could affect the numbers of people coming into A and E without directly requiring new capital investment to do it. Demanding that GPs change their office hours, however, is not likely to make much difference; this redistributes the times when people get seen, but it’s no guarantee that more will be seen and where, for example, a GP is taken off a Monday rota to go on a Sunday rota, it may mean (depending on the practice setting) that fewer are. There may be other implications. GPs do much more than talk to patients; they also coordinate continuing care and the multidisciplinary team. (I understand this may be different in England, where GPs have been complaining that they’re more remote from community nursing.) If at least one GP has always to be seeing patients, when can the practice ever have team meetings to discuss care management?
The fourth problem concerns how we respond to the population in need. We should dismiss one of the common explanations: that the ageing population itself implies a greater burden. There are theories about the ‘expansion of morbidity’, suggesting that people are ill for longer; there’s a contradictory view, the ‘compression of morbidity’, which says that people are healthier for longer – but frankly the evidence isn’t convincing for either of them. (The issues are discussed in a WHO report, Global health and ageing.) However, it is true that local population movement does increase local demands in some places – the South East of England is overcrowded while some areas of Scotland are depopulated. That’s a different kind of issue. We need to give more thought to the kind of services that are available for a mobile and often transient population.