Looking after the elderly and the vulnerable is one of the greatest and most important challenges of our age. How a society deals with those who require care is a measure of its humanity.
But realising lofty ambitions is never an easy business. Caring for a rapidly ageing population is an expensive undertaking, particularly at a time when the economic outlook has led to public service budgets being squeezed and a stretched NHS is under pressure from ever-increasing demand.
It was in recognition of this that the Scottish Government of a couple of years ago introduced one of the most radical re-organisations of how we deal with this challenge.
Integrating health and social care was never going to be a straightforward task. Inevitably there will be a clash of cultures when the hospital and doctor-dominated approach of health boards is forced to dovetail with the kind of care services provided by council social work departments.
The task of getting these two disparate groups to work together effectively will require firm leadership and that is what Scotland’s 31 Integrated Joint Boards (IJBs)have been tasked with doing.
As our report today indicates, the challenges are substantial. A document outlining the issues faced by the Edinburgh IJB reveals elderly people waiting for assessments and services, “scarce” mental health capacity and expertise as well as financially unstable GP practices having to cope with lengthening patient lists.
These hurdles have to be overcome in a difficult financial environment, where budgets are overspent and providing the right care for people turns into a multi-million pound enterprise within the blink of an eye.
The serious issues identified in our capital city will be replicated in one form or another across the country, further underlining the scale of the challenge ahead.
Nevertheless, there is broad political consensus in favour of the principle that health boards and local authorities should work together.
Doing so should avoid unnecessary duplication of services as well as create opportunities for savings. In any case, the process of integration is well under way. There can be no turning back.
The focus for IJBs across Scotland must be on overcoming these challenges, working together, using scarce resources efficiently, making financial savings where there is waste and providing first class and dignified services for those who require care.
A daunting task lies ahead, but few can be more important.