NHSpace is fed up with the various catchphrases used by the government and the media to spin stories about the NHS. Here are our top five, handily debunked and translated.
1 – Excessive demand / high bed usage
The NHS has seen a steady reduction in the number of inpatient beds, whereas the population has steadily risen and social care needs upon discharge have increased.
The overall number of ‘finished admission episodes‘ has increased by 2-3% each year, in a reasonably predictable manner. The same goes for emergency admissions, and the recently reported ‘unprecedented increase’ in emergencies is again only a 3% rise.
When the government say that hospitals are under strain from unprecedented demand, they actually mean unprecedented bed reductions and a lack of social care. If social care was properly funded then many patients could be discharged from hospital in a more timely fashion. And rather than year-on-year cuts, bed numbers need to at least increase in line with the population (around 1% each year).
2 – Overspending / hospitals in debt
The NHS budget has fallen in recent years, in real terms. We also spend less per head of population on healthcare than many other westernised countries. It should be clear that hospitals aren’t overspending, but are actually spending less than they should on their patients, all thanks to significant underfunding.
But the story goes further than that. To whom are the hospitals in debt? “The government had to lend cash-strapped hospitals a record £2.825bn in the last financial year” the Guardian reported in July this year. So state-funded hospitals are in debt to the state. Regardless of the fact that hospitals are being turned into independent businesses, they are still really underfunded rather than being in debt.
3 – No money left
The UK government cannot actually run out of money per se. If they spend too much and don’t apply enough taxation, then inflation will rise, but an increase in NHS funding doesn’t have to mean an immediate ‘NHS tax’. (Government spending is a matter of macroeconomics, and isn’t like a household budget.) The government could choose to provide an additional investment in our NHS in order to bring NHS funding in line with our European neighbours.
Every additional £1 spent on the NHS would boost the economy by £3 by supporting jobs and keeping people healthy. That means a £30bn injection of funding, which would represent a 3.8% of GDP increase in state spending, could increase the UK’s GDP by 4.4%. And this is nothing compared to what the King’s Fund think we could support. Their analysis suggests that, in the next few decades, the NHS could be funded to a much greater extent and still be affordable.
So far from there being no money left, the government could invest in the NHS and reap the economic rewards. Instead there is a political choice not to spend.
4 – 7 day NHS / weekend effect
The NHS is already open on weekends, and most specialties have consultants on-call and doctors on-site 24/7.
Hunt’s 7-day NHS is actually part of a top-down reform, pushed upon doctors at a time when government-enforced cuts mean that the NHS is already stretched too far. Forcing staff to work longer hours whilst using STP hospital closure plans to close departments isn’t safe, so Hunt needed a stick to beat them with.
This is where the weekend effect came in. A study commissioned by Hunt’s department, interpreted wrongly by Hunt, and quoted in press releases before it was even published, was used to attack doctors for working safe hours. How dare they only work one-in-four weekends when Hunt had proof that patients were coming to harm? But, as academics have revealed, Hunt’s weekend effect was based on flawed data and a downright flawed interpretation.
With his weekend effect rubbished, Hunt is now trying to make the conversation about doctors’ salaries, when in fact it’s about overstretching an understaffed service.
5 – Sustainability and Transformation
The Sustainability and Transformation Plans are supposedly about creating a modernised NHS. In reality, sustainability actually means financial restrictions and transformation means enforced closures and outsourcing. Any NHS organisation failing to follow the STPs will be denied what little new funding there is to be had, and will face a ‘failure regime’.
The end game here is for the government to whittle the NHS down into an basics-only service with a few large hospitals offering emergency and major illness care only. A two tier system will emerge, where a significant amount of routine care will be available privately and not funded by the NHS.