Ailing health service is 'held together by sticking plasters' says NHS leader

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The NHS is being held together by “sticking plasters” that “will only last so long”, the head of the NHS Confederation has warned.

And a survey of health leaders reveals that one in five believes the financial pressures on the health service are worse than they have ever been.

With health service budgets under intense pressure to meet Government savings targets of £20bn by 2015, 50 per cent of NHS chief executives and chairs said that financial restraints had affected waiting times and access to care in their organisation, and the vast majority expected budget pressures to get even worse in the coming year. Mike Farrar, chief  executive of the NHS Confederation, said that financial pressures were “very worrying” and that a “culture change” was needed if  the health service is to remain “fit for the future”.

“In the short term the NHS is holding together,” he said, ahead of the Confederation’s annual conference in Liverpool this week. “But the sticking plasters on the creaking parts of the system will only last so long. We are already seeing the pressures on our A&Es bubbling over. Change is absolutely necessary if the NHS is to remain fit for the future – the risks of not doing so are too great to ignore.”

The NHS Confederation represents all the organisations that commission and provide NHS services.

The survey of health leaders found two-thirds agreed a culture change was needed. Mr Farrar said that the Francis Report, which revealed widespread failings at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, had been “a wake-up call” about need for reform.

However, consensus behind reform has been undermined by ever-increasing pressures on NHS budgets. Two-thirds of health leaders said that the financial pressures were serious, although three-quarters said they were confident they could meet their savings targets for the coming year.

Faced with financial restraints and pressure to reform, the health service is also struggling to deliver the Government’s vision of a “joined up” health service, in which the NHS and the social care system work more closely together to meet the escalating care needs of an ageing population.

Ninety-three per cent of NHS chiefs said that only “slight progress” or “no progress” was being made to “integrate care”. Nearly two-thirds said that failure in this area would “lead to services becoming unsustainable”.

Health minister Lord Howe said that although the Government accepted the NHS was “facing  pressures”, overall it was in “good  financial health.”

“We have protected the NHS budget, and funding will increase by £12.7bn over the course of this Parliament,” he said, adding that waiting times remained low and satisfaction with the health service was high. He said that a post-Francis Report culture change was vital and that health leaders must do “everything they can to create the open, caring and compassionate service we want to see.”

Dr Peter Carter, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing said that the survey reflected “profound anxieties felt throughout the system about the current financial pressures”. He added that integrating care should be a priority “to meet the demands of an ageing population with increasingly complex conditions”.

The bleak assessment of the NHS comes as it emerged yesterday that 220 operations a day were cancelled with less than 24 hours’ notice in the first quarter of 2013, as hospitals become increasingly overstretched.