The most telling comment on rocketing waiting times was from NHS Lothian’s chief executive, who commented: “It’s back to as bad as it was three years ago.”
It is clear that at the heart of the problem is the lack of capacity in NHS Lothian to address the scale of the challenge. A growing population and an ageing population is not a future challenge, it’s with us now.
Moreover, Lothian’s population is predicted to increase every year over the next 15 years. But NHS Lothian’s budget is not keeping pace with the challenge and our local councils face even deeper cuts in the future than they have had over the last eight years. That’s why we’re seeing pressures right across our health services.
There are solutions, but all of them require investment from the SNP government. We face a crisis in Lothian with GP surgery lists closed to new patients and GPs retiring. Since 2005, investment in general practice has fallen by £1 billion across Scotland. GPs are on the front line but they need alternatives to sending older people who need care to hospital. And if GPs aren’t available then people naturally turn to overstretched A&E services when they need help.
Then there are increasing numbers of older patients stuck in hospital who are ready to leave but are waiting for care. Sometimes patients are moved around at night, affecting their sleep, through a practice called “boarding”.
We simply don’t have enough care homes or social care services to ensure older people get the quality care they need. A hospital bed costs around £4000 a week. But although health and social care services are working together to plan for the future, there isn’t the investment to get us there.
One constituent told me this week that his mother was due to leave four weeks ago but has been waiting to have her care package confirmed by the council. She receives no care on the ward and is simply waiting to leave. None of this makes sense in human or financial terms. We need to see the Scottish Government act. We’ve got hard-pressed staff working flat out and becoming stressed trying to fill the gaps in the system.
We need investment in GPs, care homes and decent care services. We need investment in new medical staff. While it takes years to train specialists, we need new doctors now and to make the best use of existing staff while new staff are trained. Yet, shockingly, funding for medical students has been cut by five per cent on average since 2008-9, reversing the trend of the previous Labour-led Scottish Government.
The failure on waiting times goes to the heart of current problems in our NHS. The targets are there to ensure patients get the care they need. Labour introduced them to end the unacceptable waits that patients experienced under the last Tory government.
In the last four years, instead of investment to tackle the growing problems in our NHS, we’ve seen complacency from the SNP government. On every front our NHS is under pressure with an ageing population and more multiple conditions. And our local authorities – its key partner in providing care services – are simply not funded to build the new care homes and expanded care services we urgently need.
Sarah Boyack is Labour MSP for the Lothians