There is nothing ‘sustainable’ about the current pressure on NHS staff

When a Health Minister calls the current pressures on the NHS “sustainable”, it shows how distant they are from the frontline, writes Dr Owain Rhys Hughes

There is huge and mounting pressure on the NHS (Photo: Getty)There is huge and mounting pressure on the NHS (Photo: Getty)
There is huge and mounting pressure on the NHS (Photo: Getty)

With the Glasgow COP26 climate summit on the horizon, the term ‘sustainability’ is currently everyone’s favourite buzzword.

But when the Health Minister, Edward Argar, today claimed that current levels of pressure on the NHS are “sustainable”, it sounded to me like he’d either forgotten the real meaning of the term or had recently emerged from a long hibernation in a remote cave.

Either way, on hospital wards, in ambulance stations and in GP surgeries, Argar’s misjudged optimism has left mouths agape. And those staff members who aren’t stunned by the inaccuracy of the assessment are feeling frustrated, ignored and invisible.

As an NHS surgeon, I want to see decision makers speaking and listening to the staff on the ground. Because if they did, they’d hear that although it might look like patient numbers aren’t overwhelming the NHS’s resources, this cannot be used to evidence claims that pressures are in any way sustainable.

The pressure is on the people

Yes, there may be the odd empty bed somewhere on a hospital ward. But what good is an empty bed if the ward’s nurses don’t have a moment to spare to attend to another patient?

And yes, A&E wait times may be within the normal range in some areas. But that can’t be used as a bellwether of capacity if there aren’t enough ambulances to bring critically unwell patients to the Emergency Departments in the first place.

The bottom line is that there is huge and mounting pressure. And it’s falling squarely on the shoulders of the staff.

This won’t always show up in the data. Stress, unpaid overtime, verbal abuse and burnout don’t translate into a linear graph or a neat chart.

That’s a problem, and one that ministers need to take into account when making NHS policy decisions that will directly impact the working lives of these same workers.

Denial is dangerous, but there are options on the table

When I first read Argar’s assurances that the NHS is coping just fine, alarm bells started ringing. Denying the complexity and the intensity of the strain on creaking NHS machinery will only make it worse, akin to papering over the cracks in your house and hoping that the walls won’t eventually collapse.

We need to do something to ease the strain.

‘We need to stop masking the reality of what it’s like to work on the frontline of this crisis’ (Photo: Getty)‘We need to stop masking the reality of what it’s like to work on the frontline of this crisis’ (Photo: Getty)
‘We need to stop masking the reality of what it’s like to work on the frontline of this crisis’ (Photo: Getty)

I understand that there are numerous arguments for and against imposing restrictions on public life to protect the NHS. But locking down is not the only solution on the table.

What if, to relieve pressure on NHS staff, we actually tackled the things that make their jobs unnecessarily difficult and waste their precious time?

As you’re reading this, outdated software and processes are eating up clinical hours and creating silos. What’s more, staff don’t have the right tools to do their jobs properly, and are often relying on the same clunky technologies that were phased out years ago in the private sector. All of this is making them increasingly frustrated and burnt out, when all they want to do is have more time and headspace to actually see their patients.

Prevention is as important as Plans A B or C

We are now at a point at which doctors’ unions are quite rightly calling for action plans and emergency measures to help the NHS cope with rising case loads. But we must couple these emergency moves with long-term efforts to get the health service on a surer footing.

We need to embrace new systems designed to make it easier for doctors to communicate with one another and collaborate on care. We must also rethink how we triage patients and distribute care amongst community services, to reduce the number of unnecessary hospital referrals eating up consultant time.

To make all of this possible, it’s time to prioritise the streamlining of this communication and collaboration across all arms of the NHS. GPs, paramedics, optometrists and other clinicians working in the community need better tools so they can work in partnership with secondary care staff, to speed up care and get the patients the support they need.

So although #sustainability may stop trending once COP26 winds down this winter, we mustn’t let projects to make the NHS more sustainable slip off the national agenda.

My colleagues have gone above and beyond to support patients over the past two years. Let’s stop masking the reality of what it’s like to work on the frontline of this crisis, and start providing the support and actioning the reforms staff deserve.

Dr Owain Rhys Hughes is founder and CEO of Cinapsis

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