So May is in, Hunt stays, Brexit means Brexit. It’s all change in a crazy week of politics. But what hasn’t changed is the NHS is still about to collapse. May will likely be the last Prime Minister to oversee its demise.
It’s my job as a doctor to interpret trends and analyse hodgepodge information to predict an outcome. I look at the NHS and see a single direction of travel: collapse without rapid and drastic intervention.
In a series of posts we will look at exactly why and how this is happening. This is what I see- you can decide yourself what you see.
In this part we will simply explain why the cost of modern healthcare rises every year just to stand still, which is fundamental to understanding the funding needs of the NHS.
This is difficult, but I think best explained if you simplify the entire health system as treating a single person, let’s call her Beverley.
Beverley is born in 1948- her birth is at home, with no healthcare professional, midwife or monitoring. Several of Beverley’s siblings are also born this way- unfortunately two die before they are one. Sadly an uncle has a heart attack at 52 and passes away.
Beverley grows up, and fortunately remains healthy. She marries, Bob, and she has her kids in 1968. She has every one in a hospital, with a midwife. One requires surgery. Beverley’s own mother has a stroke and dies at 63. Bob decides to stop smoking.
Beverley gets older. Her first grandchild is born in 1988, in hospital with electronic monitoring and emergency caesarean. Beverley’s second grandchild is born at 25 weeks, and spends three months in the new intensive care baby unit. Stressed grandparent Bob has a heart attack- he is rushed into hospital and has an emergency procedure to open the blood vessels in his heart. He is at home in time to hold his new granddaughter for the first time.
Beverley and Bob stride on, both retiring at 65. On their 50th wedding anniversary Beverley feels odd, can’t find the words to toast, and can’t raise her left arm. Her daughter dials 999- Beverley has a stroke, just like her mother. Fortunately she gets to hospital and 30 minutes later she has had a brain scan and a clot buster is being infused into her arm. She makes a full recovery, and goes back home a day later.
The junior doctor looking after Beverley spots a shadow on the routine chest X-ray she has. She is diagnosed with lung cancer.
Bob is going spare. They meet the specialist, the cancer is treatable and they start right away, six rounds of radiotherapy then weekly chemotherapy. It’s hard, and Beverley goes into hospital twice with complications.
Halfway through Bob has lots of abdominal pain and throws up some blood. Rushed to hospital he has an emergency camera test into his stomach – he’s developed a stress ulcer, which they clip and repair. He’s in hospital for a few days. Gratefully Bob and Beverley return home.
Beverley goes into remission, but is very frail now and is falling a lot at home. Now in their 80s, Bob gets chest pain trying to look after them both, and Bob needs three more stents put in to open blocked heart vessels. Bob and Beverley ask for some social services support at home- a carer comes once a day.
Overnight one night, Bob passes away in his sleep. Beverley is distraught, but at the funeral she asks her daughter; “Where’s Bob?”. Concerned, her daughter takes her to the GP. It’s clear Beverley now has dementia. She is moved first to a sheltered flat, then a residential home, then a nursing home.
She dies in hospital of a severe pneumonia at 83.
This isn’t a sad story- this is modern life and modern healthcare.
Why did i tell you this story? To show you how healthcare has changed. Let’s look at some facts.
In 1948 the average female life expectancy was 71. In 2016 it’s 81.5.
Beverley’s mum died at 63, while Beverley lived into her 80s. People are living longer.
Why? Better healthcare, better immunisations and prevention, better nutrition.
But also diseases that were previously fatal are now treatable. Mortality for conditions such as coronary artery disease have halved in fifty years- Beverley’s uncle died of a heart attack, but Bob survived two. Stroke survival and stomach bleeds are now readily survivable where fifty years ago they were not.
But these treatments are very expensive- the technology to open blood clots through vessels is super high tech and costs £3000 a go, advanced chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment costs can run to hundreds of thousands per person, and intensive baby care costs £12,000 a week.
In short- we can do more every year, so we do. And those that we save live on as survivors- but this comes at a cost.
The cost of healthcare per year for an 85 year old is around 4x that of an under 65. The proportion of the population over 65 will rise to 25% by 2040. And alongside that the population is growing, by around 30% since the start of the NHS- so there are 30% more Beverley’s and Bobs than we started with.
So more people, who need more treatment, are treated with more medicines and survive more to need more treatment in the future. And let’s not forget they will need more social care.
This is why the NHS needs 3-4% more funding every year.
That seems like a lot- it’s a tremendous challenge. But we aren’t rising to it as our neighbours are. Of the G7 countries we currently spend the 2nd least on healthcare, well behind the US, Canada, Germany and France.
With the current healthcare budget under the Tories, we will be spending just 6.7% GDP by 2020- lower than Lithuiania and Hungary.
Despite that the NHS is still consistently ranked as one of the best healthcare systems in the world. In 2012 the US commonwealth fund found it the most efficient, safe and accessible system out of all countries ranked, and also spent nearly the least.
So now you now that the NHS needs a rising budget to meet rising demand, like every other modern country. Yet we aren’t funding it anywhere near that level, and we aren’t meeting that demand.
In short, the NHS is about to collapse.
Find out how in;
Read the other parts in this series: The NHS is Collapsing.