These lapses in caring for the elderly show how stretched the NHS is

Disturbing press and media coverage about recent reports exposing the shortfalls in the care of older people in our hospitals is very worrying.

While the snapshots these reports provide do not give a true picture of how all hospitals and their staff treat patients, they do sound alarm bells.

Perhaps the most worrying thing is that these reports fuel a growing feeling that things are not as they should be.

Headline horror stories about the care of the elderly are becoming all too frequent across the UK, and here in Wales, following a series of harrowing complaints, the health service ombudsman has been reported as saying that the NHS is failing older people.

Unsurprisingly, when complaints emerge, a range of things are blamed for the service’s shortcomings: shortage of money, poor leadership, frugal managers, inadequate staffing, poor training, shoddy facilities, the system, lack of scrutiny and so on.

No doubt all of these are factors, but this is a problem that goes far beyond the control of the NHS and the people who work in it.

Put simply, our society has become very reliant on the NHS and our expectations of it continue to rise. The brutal truth is that the NHS is in many ways stretched to the limit.

The problems we are seeing are symptoms of a service under pressure, with its workers feeling increasingly embattled.

This does not excuse unprofessional behaviour, a lack of empathy with patients and their families or an unsympathetic approach to care. What it does show is that human relations, attitudes and ability to cope are challenged when times are tough.

As a society, we owe it to patients, and those who work in the NHS, not to take a too simplistic view of the causes of the problems that now clearly exist.

Even though there has been huge investment in recent times, there is still not enough money in the healthcare system to provide an all-encompassing service that keeps up to speed with the perpetual development of treatments, technology and practice.

We do not use the resources we have – money, people and facilities – as effectively as we could because we try to do too much, spread the butter too thinly and fail to prioritise. And we are not prepared to rationalise services to live within our means.

So the system is creaking and it is only through the dedication of its people that somehow it has managed to carry on.

It’s easy to blame the NHS and its staff for the service’s shortcoming but what we are now seeing are the cracks which will only get worse if, as a nation, we fail to wake up to the fact that the NHS itself requires urgent care and attention.

We need a serious debate about what sort of health service we can afford and what we can reasonably expect it to do. Steely courage is needed to put our NHS on an even keel for the future.

Talking of the future, we had better prepare for it.

If we’ve got problems in caring for older people now, then we are likely to have a whole load more with the “baby boomer” generation down the line.

Already, 48% of 65 to 74-year-olds and 62% of the over-75s have a limiting long-term illness.

There’s no doubt we need to face up to the problems being encountered in our NHS. Poor service is unacceptable but we all share the responsibility of helping the NHS get fit for now and the future.

Written by Mike Ponton, Senior Fellow, WIHSC

This blog is reproduced from Mike Ponton’s article in the Western  Mail on 28th March 2011

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