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Wake up call for underperforming NHS

View profile for Judith Thomas-Whittingham
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The Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is expected to tell the Commons today of the “shocking underperformance” of the NHS, leading to an estimated 30,000 premature deaths each year in the UK.

His comments are prompted by a report published in The Lancet, which has found the NHS falling behind its European and global counterparts despite a three-fold increase in spending over the last 20 years.

The good news is that general health in the UK has improved. Life expectancy has risen by 4.2 years to an average of 79.9 years. However, it is not improving as fast as in other developed nations; the UK was ranked 14th out of 19 countries involved in the study.

Prof Kevin Fenton, co-author of the report, has described these findings as a “wake-up call and an opportunity” for the NHS. The overall improvement in general health disguises serious failures to tackle certain problem areas such as obesity and smoking, both of which are major risk factors for the ‘five big killers’ – cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory and liver diseases.

Prof Newton, another co-author of the report, believes that the NHS has suffered from piecemeal initiatives. Perhaps this is why Jeremy Hunt is pinning his hopes on the reformed system under the Health and Social Care Act 2012. He is expected to call on new local health commissioners to focus on prevention and early treatment to lower the burden of poor health on society.

Hopefully, this focus on local healthcare provision will allow for effective primary intervention in treating risk factors for disease, helping to slash premature death rates in the UK.

However, it must be remembered that these failings have been revealed despite two decades of previous investment and reform. It is therefore easy to doubt whether the new changes will improve the pace of progress in the NHS.

By Laura Priestley