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The NHS & disease prevention

Last Updated: 19 January 2019








The NHS & disease prevention

The National Health Service was undoubtedly a fabulous initiative post WWII, however, 64 years on, the system is under increasing pressure to deliver services cost effectively to an increasingly unhealthy population.


Today’s NHS is over-burdened, riddled with problems and seriously lacking in innovation compared to health care systems in other countries around the world. Despite this, British society still seems to cherish their beloved health care system; in fact, two recent studies highlighted that the British were most satisfied with their health system in comparison with all other populations surveyed. However, this positive imagery of the NHS, further reinforced by the Olympic opening ceremony, is clearly unfounded as the same study showed that the NHS performs poorly compared to other nations.


A watchdog recently discovered that “more than a quarter of the NHS and social care services in England are failing to meet the essential standards they should”. In many of the 14,000 sites inspected, staff shortages, poor management of medicines and poor patient care were evident.


An example of this is a case study by the BBC which found that prominent staff shortages in the district nursing service run by Cambridgeshire Community Services NHS Trust meant that “the team was only just able to respond to urgent requests for visits”. Furthermore, “the frequent moving around of staff to cover sickness and leave meant continuity of care suffered.”


More importantly, not only is the NHS unable to support many of their patients effectively, it is also failing to implement worthwhile preventative measures. Might it be more appropriate to call the NHS the NDS (National Disease Service) in light of the fact that it does very little to encourage good health?


The failings of the current system is causing individuals and companies to supplement the NHS by way of ’top up’ contributions. This is perhaps a worthy endeavour considering that the government supports very few effective preventative health measures to limit the growing number of lifestyle related diseases, such as those attributed to the current obesity epidemic.


Now imagine a government policy that does nothing (or very little) to prevent road accidents! A policy supports the concept of building bigger hospitals for those injured in traffic accidents but has little interest in preventing the accidents in the first place. Well, this is the current philosophy for lifestyle related health disease in England.


Because the NHS and government cannot offer enough hospital beds for those with lifestyle related (read preventable) health problems, it seems as if we now must look to the prevention of lifestyle related disease in exactly the same way that we look at preventable acute trauma.


Despite the obvious and measurable cost to society of lifestyle related health problems not enough is being done to tackle the growing problem.  Yes, there are some excellent preventative initiatives such as the Stop Smoking Now programme; however, we need to look more broadly at options. Tax breaks for companies encouraging their staff’s wellbeing; incentives for individuals to help them to live healthier  lives; and even financial penalties for organisations that impede a healthy lifestyle by demanding too much of their staff and not taking steps to address the resultant stress; these all must be piloted and then, if successful, implemented.


A lack of disease prevention initiatives is not only bad for the health of the nation, but it is also has the potential to bankrupt the NHS. A UK study reported that the annual NHS cost of the direct treatment of diabetes in the UK will increase from £9.8 billion to £16.9 billion over the next 25 years.


It cannot be denied that the NHS has saved the lives of many British citizens, and we are more fortunate than other countries where health care is not equally available to all. However, we should be comparing our health system to the best, not the worst, and it is clear that the NHS should be doing a lot more in the ‘health’ arena to prevent diseases and illnesses through health programmes rather than just dealing with emergencies.


Healthy living (and therefore disease prevention) is an ongoing journey, and the government must be prepared to invest in long term, sustainable programmes. Disease prevention is not a destination lasting only to the next election, it is an ongoing journey.


Written by Ruth Tongue
(MSc Nutrition)

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