This has been a busy month for the NHS. England has narrowly avoided a 24 hour strike by junior doctors, the difficulties experienced by the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow have been laid bare on national television for all to see and Question Time debated passionately whether the NHS would fail this winter. Locally, Katy Lewis, our finance director, told a packed audience at our Wednesday Clinical Meeting of the financial difficulties faced by our Health Board while Ewan Bell, Associate Medical Director, wrote a blog about Prioritising Health Care and the chairman of our Medical Staff Committee drew our attention to Audit Scotland’s report on the state of the NHS in Scotland 2015.
Did I hear/listen to/read them all correctly? Can it really be true that the fifth largest economy in the world cannot afford to provide safe, high quality, emergency health care that is free at the point of delivery?
Let’s start locally. Unless I am very much mistaken we have two major challenges in the run up to our new hospital opening in December 2017. We desperately need to avoid the scenes in Glasgow of ambulances queuing outside A&E and trolleys stacking inside A&E and equally we need to ensure that there is sufficient social care for our frail elderly patients when they go home from hospital. The challenge is likely to be greater for Dumfries and Galloway which has the second highest proportion of people in Scotland who are aged 75+ and living alone.
Katy Lewis spoke of the need for transformative change (aka doing things differently). Who could possibly disagree? If we carry on as we are doing now then the tidal wave of unscheduled medical admissions will cause our new hospital to silt up on the day it opens. This is the conclusion I have drawn after analysing data provided by our own Health Intelligence Unit (the figure below shows the medical unit is sailing perilously close to 100% bed occupancy) and it is the nightmare scenario we must all be dreading. It should surely be concentrating everyone’s minds. If we get this wrong it won’t just be the local newspaper that will have a field day.
As it happens we have been working on ways of doing things differently and have identified two possible solutions: Ambulatory Emergency Care (which does what it says on the tin) and Comprehensive Geriatric Assessment (see below for definition). We must also ensure that we staff the new Combined Assessment Unit adequately. Both AEC and CGA will require investment if they are to be part of the organisation’s response to an impending beds crisis. Other hospitals in Scotland have already embraced AEC and CGA and there is published evidence to support the view that these examples of transformative change will reduce bed occupancy. Has anyone come up with a better idea?
Equally if we are to keep that new hospital flowing we must invest in patient transport and community support services, particularly social care teams, providers of equipment, community nurses and carers. The unintended consequence of preventive medicine is that we have more frail elderly people to look after than ever before. Their numbers appear to be increasing as the number of carers available to look after them decreases. It can surely come as no surprise to learn that carers are in short supply when some are only paid £6.70 per hour (even less than this when we don’t pay mileage or travel time between visits). Compare this to a consultant physician on £36-44 per hour and the eye watering sums of up to £120 per hour we spend on some of our locums. The enormous difference between carer and locum salaries simply has to be addressed.
Audit Scotland say that ‘significant pressures on the NHS are affecting its ability to make progress with long-term plans to change how services are delivered.’ The title of Katy Lewis’ presentation was ‘Austerity or Bust’. Ewan Bell wants us to acknowledge that ‘we can’t continue to provide the current range of interventions and services, if we want a sustainable NHS for the future.’ I personally believe that the 5th largest economy in the world could afford to provide high quality emergency care as well as batteries for hearing aids and palliative chemotherapy for the frail elderly (if that is what they really want), but if I am wrong then surely the batteries and the chemo must go.
Chris Isles is a ‘semi-retired’ Consultant Physician
Comprehensive Geriatric Assessment: ‘a multidimensional and usually interdisciplinary diagnostic process designed to determine a frail older person’s medical conditions, mental health, functional capacity and social circumstances. The purpose is to plan and carry out a holistic plan for treatment, rehabilitation support and long term follow up.’