Reorganisation of the NHS

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, for securing this debate. We are entering one of the biggest reorganisations of the health service since 1948 by passing budgets and power locally to GPs. I welcome this move. However, difficult questions must be asked, not just about how we can more efficiently manage, organise and run the health service but about whether the story that we tell as a nation about our health is true, life-giving and sustainable.

In the health debate in October, I asked how we could provide quality healthcare that meets the real needs of patients in today’s world. Is the popular biomedical model of health in which we invest good for our health and sustainable? Will it help those most in need, or does its internal logic present us with a costly and limited view of what a healthy human being is?

The GPs with whom I work tell me that in deprived communities such as Tower Hamlets 50 per cent of the patients whom they see do not need a doctor. One GP at an NHS walk-in centre told me that, out of the 80 patients he saw in one day, only 20 really needed to see him. A nurse told me of one patient who came into her surgery last week to ask her for hand cream on the NHS rather than buying it at the chemist. Let us tell a story about the personal responsibility of patients. Often, “patients” do not need a doctor; they need something else. What presents itself as a health issue may be more to do with a patient’s isolation or the need for a better job or lifestyle. People have bought into a culture of illness because it costs them nothing, but in reality the cost to our society is running into millions of pounds. A Times article this week stated that 7 million patients failed to show up for hospital appointments in the past year, costing the NHS millions of pounds. If those 80 patients at the clinic had had to pay £5 each to see the doctor, they would first have asked themselves, “Is this visit really necessary?”.

A sensible balance and perspective need to be found. There is a cultural belief that there is a pill for every ailment, and that if there is not there should be. We are in danger of medicalising people out of existence and creating levels of anxiety that have unintended consequences. Only last week, “experts” advised those of us over 50-I declare an interest here-to take an aspirin every day, but the sting in the tale was that, for some of us, it might mean bleeding to death internally. I am in danger of becoming a nervous wreck.

We must return to the question that the innovative Dr George Scott Williamson from the Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham asked all those years ago before the founding of the NHS: “What is health?” Although we love them dearly, the BMA and their powerful allies in the medical profession have many financial and other interests in keeping the health narrative unchanged and unchallenged. Our health is matter not just for our doctors.

Most of us engage with the health service through primary care and not, fortunately, through the acute sector. It is in preventive medicine in primary care that limited funds can have the most impact. Some fantastic innovative attempts in preventive health care have been made, and some successes achieved, by using the power of modern media to change behaviour. Jamie Oliver, a well known social entrepreneur-not a doctor-challenged our preconceptions about unhealthy eating. The Government have published an excellent white paper on public health, Healthy Lives, Healthy People. It underscores the importance of preventive actions taken at the initiative of the community and local businesses.

My colleagues and I have radical plans for a social business to regenerate communities in east London through good food-I declare an interest here, too. We want to teach non-cooks how to cook in their communities and young mums how to create healthy meals for their children. We have partnered with Jamie Oliver’s team and the most well-known academics in the field. We also have support from the local NHS. However, obtaining start-up grants to support this work has not been easy. We suspect that this is because we are unashamedly a social business and not a charity. Why are innovative projects such as this, with all their potential for cost saving, still so hard to get going? Why are more innovative partnerships such as this not being brought together by local GPs and social entrepreneurs? It is because they live in different worlds, and because government and charitable funding silos discourage cross-fertilisation and make it so hard to do. New thinking comes not out of theoretical clouds but out of novel and unexpected practical partnerships. Yet the present professional structures discourage this. Why?

What might a new health narrative sound like? First, the NHS needs to tell a story about a changing demography and the financial realities that lie behind it. We have an ageing population and a health system that is unsustainable. Let us tell people the truth. We all need to take more individual responsibility for our health. The NHS should be a supportive shoulder on which to lean, if and when required, instead of encouraging a dependency culture and maintaining its present stranglehold.

Secondly, Governments must tell a new story about the importance of preventive medicine and illustrate it by telling the stories of GPs who are now forming relationships outside the box. Governments must be more honest with us all and stop feeding on papers, statistics and structures that can magically be manipulated to tell them exactly what they want to hear. They go home happy; the patients do not.

Why not start asking how government can help to bring together doctors and social entrepreneurs, innovators, artists and creative people in shared health buildings so that we develop innovative approaches to basic health care and prescriptions that meet people’s real health and social needs? This is not about new money but about asking how money that already exists in local communities can be brought together in a more integrated and efficient way. Let us bring together practitioners from different disciplines into the same building and move beyond the collocation of services to integration. We have in east London.

Thirdly, let us tell a story that admits that ploughing vast amounts of money into the health service does not inevitably improve people’s health; it can have unintended consequences. People in poorer areas still die seven years earlier than in richer areas, and health inequalities between rich and poor are getting progressively worse, even after all the investment in recent years. More money is not necessarily the answer. We need to think more imaginatively than this.

I leave a couple of questions for the Minister. How in practice is government going to use the restructuring of the health service to create a new narrative relevant to modern health? Secondly, what is government going to do to ensure that doctors engage with innovators and entrepreneurs?