I only recently joined the British Heart Foundation (BHF) as head of Scotland. What drew me here was not only the scale of the challenge of heart and circulatory diseases in Scotland, but the monumental efforts of so many people here to do something about them.
It’s a critical time to be joining as we look forward to the opportunities of a new decade. I’ve been reading up on the new BHF 10-year strategy that sets out the advances we’d like to see by 2030. The focus is on continuing to build on our vital research, preventing heart and circulatory diseases from developing, and ensuring that those with existing conditions live longer, better lives.
During my first few days with the charity, I was also hugely impressed by the shortlist for the BHF’s Big Beat Challenge. This international initiative challenges researchers to come up with transformational solutions to tackle the world’s biggest killer, and the shortlist is jaw-dropping. From a robotic heart to give new hope for people living with heart failure to targeting the genes that cause inherited heart conditions, these ideas show how much we can potentially achieve when we work together, and I’m looking forward to seeing which of these groundbreaking projects is awarded the £30 million funding later this year.
The future is full of exciting possibilities. But right now, heart and circulatory diseases are still a huge challenge here in Scotland. Coronary heart disease remains our single biggest killer, causing around 18 deaths every day.
It’s a huge burden on the NHS – every 50 minutes, someone in Scotland is admitted to hospital due to a heart attack, and there are around 720,000 people living with a heart or circulatory condition.
Significant progress has been made in reducing death rates, thanks to advances in diagnosis, treatment and care, many of them thanks to research funded by the BHF. When the charity was set up in the 1960s, seven in ten people who had a heart attack in this country didn’t survive. Now, seven in ten people who’ve had a heart attack return home to their families. But there is still much work to do. The recent stall in life expectancy in Scotland has been partly attributed to a slowdown in the rate of improvement in death rates from heart and circulatory diseases.
That’s why we think it’s time for a national conversation about where we go from here, and how we can deliver a heart disease strategy for Scotland that can tackle head-on the future challenges we face. We want it to involve everyone affected by heart and circulatory diseases, and we’re launching a consultation which will be available on the BHF website to hear from patients and their families, clinicians, government and other third sector organisations.
Currently, the Scottish Government’s work in this area is set out in the Heart Disease Improvement Plan, published in 2014. This was an update of the Better Heart Disease and Stroke Care Action Plan from 2009. But the healthcare system has changed a lot in the last ten years and the pace of change is only increasing.
Healthcare policy has also moved on, with significant opportunities presented by innovations in technology and approach. For example, Realistic Medicine promotes a more personalised approach and greater input into decision making for patients, and the General Medical Services contract, published in 2018, sets out plans to expand the multi-disciplinary teams in GP practices and reshapes how people with long-term conditions engage with this part of the health care system.
At BHF Scotland, we’ve been working with a number of health boards, funding work around risk factors like high blood pressure. These projects are using technology to help people to monitor their own condition at home. This can empower patients to manage high blood pressure more effectively, and ensure more efficient use of NHS time and resources.
Harnessing advances in technology is key to future success but we recognise that it brings its own challenges, including the need for cohesive long-term planning and an investment in equipment, workforce and training, especially to enable staff to keep up with developments.
BHF is currently investing around £66million in Scotland to research the heart and circulatory conditions that devastate so many lives. Although our research starts with the heart, it doesn’t end there. We’re also investigating the health damage caused by air pollution, the growing numbers of people living with vascular dementia, and the inequalities often faced by women in cardiovascular diagnosis and care.
A lot has been achieved in the last decade but we’re determined to keep working to meet the challenges faced by each family affected by heart and coronary diseases in Scotland. I’m keen to get to work with our volunteers, staff and supporters to ensure that BHF Scotland is equipped for the future. I also look forward to working with our partners in the third sector and government to develop the new strategy we need to meet the challenges of the 2020s together and beat heartbreak for Scotland.
James Jopling, head of BHF Scotland.