‘Not easy times….’
‘….but when are they?’ Said Dr Charles Alessi, Senior Advisor at Public Health England (PHE) and Co-Chair of National Association of Primary Care, when I asked him if the news about General Practitioner (GP) surgeries closing their lists was impacting hugely on his day ahead.
His response seemed like an understatement to me, and I am waiting for the inevitable newspaper headlines tomorrow proclaiming (again) ‘Healthcare in crisis’ or the like. I was talking to Dr Alessi about his role and speaking at the forthcoming Health Europe conference, and his cheery upbeat tone seemed to me to be wholly representative of a sector which can’t seem to get much media attention on the positives within the sector these days.
The first Junior Doctors strike took place on 12 January, a dispute which I fear many people don’t fully understand the issues at stake and quite why it’s happening, and the news that GP’s are more likely to commit suicide has hit the headlines.
I have several relations who work in the field too, and they also are stoically upbeat whilst still acknowledging times are tough. I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that it’s a personality trait which anyone working in the sector should have as a pre-requisite for the job!
Here in the UK, we have so many options for us to take control of our own well-being, and yet so many across Europe are not as privileged.
Prior to the seasonal break, I was considering afresh the fact that here in the UK, we have so many options for us to take control of our own well-being, and yet so many across Europe are not as privileged.
Indeed, the European healthcare systems are under increasing burdens from economic and social (including migratory) challenges of late. Through researching and talking to many people about healthcare across Europe, its differing systems and policies, I became acutely aware that we in the UK have not only a healthcare system we are rightly proud (and protective) of, but also that our population has been given so many choices about how to take our individual health and well-being into our own hands.
At a time of year when the NHS usually goes into crisis mode, anticipating even more burden on hospital beds, shortages of staff etc, I considered the many ways in which we as individuals were enabled to help ourselves.
Why were we, as consumers, not helping ourselves first and reducing the burden on our beloved healthcare system?
I even went so far as to conduct a straw poll amongst local parents and friends about whether they were aware of alternative options to seeing a GP, such as services which could be accessed via a local pharmacy (often open longer hours than your GP surgery), or alternative ways to interact with your GP (many offering online appointment booking for example).
Many people used the NHS Helpline or website, but still ended up at their GP for what was inevitably a minor ailment, a niggle, and more often than not requiring (they thought) antibiotics.
The results were disappointing to me; anecdotally many people used the NHS Helpline or website, but still ended up at their GP for what was inevitably a minor ailment, a niggle, and more often than not requiring (they thought) antibiotics. Having recently become an antibiotic guardian – a PHE initiative – I was more than worried by this.
Whilst I was speaking to Dr Alessi, I asked him about the strategy of putting prevention at the heart of PHE’s approaches to improving our public health, and he was clear that prevention and treatment go hand in hand.
He was talking also of the wider context of the biggest challenges which the sector faces, those of obesity, diabetes, cardio-vascular problems, an aging population and mental health. ‘Prevention includes effective strategies to ensure a condition doesn’t deteriorate, or deteriorates slower’ he said.
I was again, struck with the thought that we the consumer/patient should be taking better control of our own healthcare. After all, our UK health system is trying its hardest to make it easy for us.
Taking control of our own healthcare
The shock tactics of the recent launch of the Sugar Smart App has also made something clearer to me, my social media feed is full of people horrified by the sugar content of the food cupboards, and thus pledging to cut down.
It’s a good gimmick, simple to use and designed to help educate our children (I’m sure in the hopes of reducing childhood obesity for example). Social media feeds full of ‘OMG I can’t believe how much sugar is in a can of beans’ etc suggests that it is at least improving awareness of hidden calories.
It seems to me that as a nation we almost need things to be perceived as at a crisis point to actually improve uptake of preventative strategies.
It seems to me that as a nation we almost need things to be perceived as at a crisis point to actually improve uptake of preventative strategies. It’s an odd parallel that it requires a shock of a ‘big disease’ (such as cancer, diabetes, heart problems) diagnosis to make individuals take a look at their lifestyle and change it for the good of their health.
We leave a visit to the doctor about something serious until it’s too late; we leave it to get to crisis point with hospital beds before money is re-directed to improve support services.
Not easy times indeed. And yet, our NHS is doing its utmost to try and make it easier for us to help ourselves, and thus themselves. Perhaps it’s time for some positive PR about the power the individuals have to help support our healthcare system, before it reaches a crisis point?