Tackling today's health problems

17 November 2014        

Simon Gillespie

Our Chief Executive Simon Gillespie writes argues why tackling the health problems of today should not be at the expense of the health problems of tomorrow.

Like ebola, the health emergencies of today will always dominate the headlines and the minds of politicians and policy makers.

However, we cannot afford to ignore the long-term, slow motion public health crisis we know is coming: preventable illness.

More of us are living longer. But as the population gets older increasing numbers of people are living with long-term health conditions, like arthritis, chronic lung disease or cardiovascular disease.

These conditions are not inevitable. For example, 75% of cardiovascular disease is preventable.

Up to half of all cancers could be prevented by changes in lifestyle behaviours.

Today there are 15million people in England whose daily lives are affected by these conditions. And that number is only going to rise, placing an increasing burden on families, communities and the health service.

Earlier this month a new report by the Richmond Group of Charities, of which the BHF is a member, highlighted this very issue as the rise in potentially preventable conditions is expected to increase NHS costs by £5bn a year between 2011 and 2018.

And the impact won't just be seen in the NHS budget. People may have to give up work, becoming economically inactive, to look after someone with serious care needs.

If we are to meet this challenge we need an imaginative new approach to improving the nation's health. It is not enough for prevention to be the responsibility of the Department of Health.

From the habits we learn at school, to the way our cities are designed, to the responsibilities which our employers have for our wellbeing many factors influence our tendency to develop illnesses.

This calls for a cross departmental approach to tackle preventable mortality. Public health needs to be the business of all government, but currently there are no mechanisms to allow ownership of this issue to extend across governmental departments.

A joined up, integrated approach must be at the centre of all our efforts to tackle ill health. Yet, proposals for the NHS in England set out three different outcomes frameworks for the NHS, social care and public health, against which performance will be assessed.

The BHF wants to see a single outcomes framework to mandate health and social care organisations to work together to meet common outcomes.

Finally, the government can support medical research and the delivery of health services, by facilitating the better use of patient data.

We believe that good data collection and use is not only fundamental to the delivery of good healthcare and the conduct of medical research, it is also vital for good governance. If we do not fully understand our healthcare system, we cannot appropriately plan for its development or be aware of any failings in delivery.

We believe that the government should do all that it can to promote secure and effective data collection and sharing for the purposes of making well-informed decisions about healthcare in order to deliver public benefit.

The ill-health epidemic facing the UK is real, and we know what the future consequences will be. If we want to avert the crisis of tomorrow, we need to take action today.