Leader comment: NHS miracles like this one come at a cost

Sometimes one has to take a step back and simply admire the wonders that modern medical science can perform.

Three-week-old Vanellope Hope Wilkins had an incredibly rare condition which meant her heart grew on the outside of the body (Picture: PA)
Three-week-old Vanellope Hope Wilkins had an incredibly rare condition which meant her heart grew on the outside of the body (Picture: PA)

Who could have imagined that a baby born with her heart outside her body could have possibly survived just a few decades ago?

But today Vanellope Hope Wilkins is alive because of the extraordinary skill of a team of surgeons who put her heart back inside her chest cavity, the first time such a procedure has been carried out in the UK.

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Instead of grieving over her loss, her parents now have the joy of a new child.

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This happy news comes after scientists reported the success of a potentially groundbreaking new drug designed to treat Huntington’s disease in trials involving a small group of patients.

While the trial was too small and did not last long enough to demonstrate that the drug is a cure, one expert described it as the “biggest breakthrough in neurodegenerative disease in the past 50 years”.

But, of course, there is a significant cost to complex surgery and research into new medicines, one that we in the UK have largely been insulated from by the National Health Service.

In places like the US, people are much more familiar with the tens of thousands of pounds that hospital treatment can cost – thanks to being presented with the receipt.

Being free at the point of delivery, as the NHS famously is, means there is a risk we start to take healthcare for granted. The health service could doubtless make savings, but if we are to take advantage of medical breakthroughs that can save lives and treat devastating diseases we will have to pay for them.

If our politicians are to accept the need to spend more on health, we the public will need to recognise this first.

Increasing taxes is never popular, but this may have to happen if the NHS is to keep up with our expectations of world-class treatment.

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However, putting up taxes – as the Scottish Government appears to be about to do – is not a simple matter. Business leaders have warned doing so could depress growth, with a negative effect on overall revenue.

And the IPPR Scotland think tank today reports that public spending – outside of the protected health and police budgets – could be cut by £1.3bn a year by 2019.

So any extra money from higher taxes may be quickly swallowed up as most of our services remain much the same – a bleak prospect.