Going to hospital, as a patient, with a sick relative, or as a visitor, provides insight to the stresses and strains of our national health service. While we see regular reports of waiting targets being missed, cancelled operations, and staff shortages, it is made all the more real by experiencing it close to.
Many will have suffered the frustrations of GP and A&E services that have to cope with time-wasters through to life threatening conditions. Inconsistencies in quality of care in wards can be down to staff shortages, shift changes or peaks in demand, but that does not make the person affected feel any better.
Bed-blocking is all the more telling when a loved one is involved. At times the service can appear to be in crisis. Yet some of these concerns can appear petty, compared with the daily achievements of the NHS, often delivering medical ‘miracles’.
The recent BBC documentary of ground breaking work in the new super-hospital in Glasgow had many such examples. Stories appear in the press from those grateful for the care received across Scotland, highlight life saving treatments, and improvements to quality of life. Individually and collectively we owe so much to the medical expertise and compassion of our doctors and nurses.
It is human nature to want to blame someone when a critical public service fails to live up to expectations, but the problems the NHS faces would challenge any government.
There are many issues, not least the mismatch of limited funding and increasing demands on the service. A growing elderly population with ever more complex needs, advances in medical science that often strain budgets, widespread unhealthy lifestyles, and higher expectations of what the service should provide all play their part. Meanwhile, our spend on the NHS as a proportion of our GDP has fallen well behind some developed nations.
There are many possible answers to these challenges, but some, like changing the way we fund the NHS, are hugely controversial. Equally, there can be few more sensitive areas than considering passing on the consequences of bad lifestyle choices to those responsible – whether through limiting services, or how they are paid for.
Creating a truly sustainable future for our NHS is one of the biggest issues for Scotland and the rest of the UK. Politicians and their parties do not have all the answers, and in this area more than any other, a fundamental review of the options is required, by experts who are politically non-aligned, coming to the task with an open mind. Their conclusions would need cross-party consensus, ideally with inter-government cooperation enabling reforms to benefit the whole of the UK, not just Scotland.
The NHS is too important to leave to party politics, but our political leaders will need courage and foresight, if the honest and radical review it requires, is to be allowed to happen.
Keith Howell is a business consultant. He lives in West Linton, Peeblesshire and blogs on www.nupateer.com