The NHS has said it will save half a million lives over the next decade by tackling killer diseases with earlier treatment, healthy living improvements, and technology to remove waits and assist diagnosis.
NHS England has said measures in its long term plan, due to be published on Monday, will prevent 150,000 heart attacks, strokes and cases of dementia over the next decade.
But experts said the NHS will fall well short of its goals unless it first addresses crises of staffing, social care, and demand that mean waiting times for A&E, planned treatment and cancer have not been hit in Theresa May’s tenure.
Dr Nick Scriven, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said the plans - announced amid the busiest time of year for hospitals - give no insight into how the “eternal winter in the NHS” will be addressed.
“The harsh reality right now is that the NHS is at least 3,100 beds short of what it required last winter, more than 45 per cent of consultant posts are unfilled along with 11.6 per cent of nursing posts and the proposed green paper on social care is nowhere to be seen,” he added.
The plan is expected to address the issue of recovering treatment time performance, but ministers have said both social care and staffing will be dealt with in depth at a later date.
NHS England emphasises the role of technology to improve diagnosis, in particular genetic testing to personalise cancer treatment, and AI to improve stroke care and diagnosis.
Cancer Research UK welcomed commitments to improve early diagnosis but said the “scale of the challenge is huge” in the face of shortages of radiology, oncology and endoscopy specialists.
“Ultimately, without enough properly trained specialist staff to diagnose and treat those with cancer, progress will stall,” said Emma Greenwood CRUK director of policy and public affairs.
Nigel Edwards, chief executive of the Nuffield Trust think tank welcomed the plan’s ambition, but said the workforce challenge is out of its hands. Despite the £20.5bn to support these goals by 2023 a no-deal Brexit could sap more staff and funds and “stop progress in its tracks”, he added.
“Only bold policies on training, immigration and Brexit can deliver enough nurses, GPs and therapists for the next few years.
“The system of workforce planning has failed us, and needs deep reform.”
The prime minister and health secretary Matt Hancock went on a Sunday breakfast show offensive to promote the plan, which will set new targets for mental health and maternity care and prevent 85,000 deaths a year.
Mr Hancock was asked repeatedly about how the plan will address shortages of more than 100,000 doctors, nurses and other staff across the health service.
“We need to recruit more, train more, and also retain the people in the NHS who are working so hard now,” the health secretary said.
Central to the government’s plan is improving access to care in the community and improving links between general practice, district nurses, hospitals and social care.
However, unchecked workloads mean nurses and GPs are leaving or cutting down their hours, meaning less for patients with complex health problems most likely to end up at A&E.
NHS England has said every patient will have the option of accessing GP appointments through an app-based service.
This could include the GP at Hand scheme already running in London and which Mr Hancock has endorsed, however doctors groups have said the model “cherry picks” healthy patients.
For those patients who do end in A&E, NHS England has pledged an expansion of “same day emergency care” at major hospitals which aims to ensure they can be discharged, with appropriate support in the community, without an overnight stay.
“There’s been concern – about funding, staffing, increasing inequalities and pressures from a growing and ageing population,” said NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens.
“This NHS Long Term Plan acts on all three of these realities. It keeps all that’s good about our health service and its place in our national life.
“It tackles head-on the pressures our staff face. And it sets a practical, costed, phased route map for the NHS’s priorities for care quality and outcomes improvement for the decade ahead.”
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