This last week has once again provided a vivid reminder of the incredible work being undertaken by the staff of our NHS in Scotland.
The number of people falling ill with flu has doubled in the past week alone. GP appointments for patients in Scotland are the highest anywhere in the UK. The really remarkable thing is that the number of horror stories emerging from wards is not higher.
So I join with the SNP Government this weekend in praising the efforts of the doctors and nurses who are keeping the show on the road. And, in the short term, I would reiterate First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s point that it is still not too late for people to get a flu jab this winter.
Doing so will not just help you, it will help the NHS cope in the trying weeks ahead.
That is the key short-term message coming from all political parties – in government and opposition alike – this weekend.
But, as this winter flu crisis in the NHS continues unabated, it’s also important that we do not simply ignore the wider, long-term political debate about our NHS, not shy away from the issues that this crisis has exposed.
We must examine some of the root causes behind it. And that means confronting areas where things simply aren’t working as well as they should be.
The health service in Scotland has undergone significant reform in recent years. The policy aim has been to ensure that more people are cared for out of hospital, and closer to their community. We all agree with this move. It’s what people and families say they want and it’s what’s best to help people’s health and maintain independence.
That is why every political party in Scotland supported the integration of health and social care to help shift the balance of care from the acute hospital setting into the community. But we did not give SNP Ministers a blank cheque.
One of the greatest challenges facing our NHS is the delayed discharge of patients back home or into social care.
On a recent visit to St John’s Hospital in Livingston, I learned of the scale of this problem ahead of winter when nurses told me they had 63 delayed discharge patients with one gentleman having been waiting to return home for 180 days.
It is little wonder then that we are seeing Health & Social Care Partnerships across the country being forced to consider drastic measures – such as NHS Lothian which leaked internal emails revealed was considering sending patients home from hospital without appropriate care packages in place.
The Scottish Parliament’s Health & Sport Committee has undertaken work on how integration is happening – and already serious concerns are being raised around governance, engagement with communities, local planning, and perhaps most importantly budget responsibility and accountability.
In recent weeks the committee has also heard from health professionals just how far behind other countries our Scottish NHS is when it comes to information technology – something frontline NHS staff have been telling us for some time.
In 11 years of SNP management of our NHS in Scotland, it would seem this has never been a priority. We have a lot of catching up to do and Scottish Conservatives are determined to press SNP Ministers to invest in our health IT systems.
All of this is why Ruth Davidson called on Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP to put in place a moratorium to halt the cuts in hospital beds across Scotland at First Minister’s Questions.
Until we are truly able to be confident that we have the resources and care places available in a community setting, we need to make sure that we are not de-stabilising our NHS.
As it stands, the SNP has cut bed numbers. At the same time, the number of social care places for elderly people in Scotland has fallen too.
That means when issues like the recent flu crisis occur, our NHS reaches breaking point. The SNP can’t blame anyone else for this. It has been well-warned about the consequences of inaction, and now patients are paying the price.
On a recent trip to Norway, I saw first-hand how the country has been able to eradicate delayed discharge – they have a fully integrated patient information system so that doctors and carers are able to see live information on people to deliver the best care and perhaps most importantly take into account what care and support patients want.
They have moved to co-locate hospital and community teams so that joint working takes place between teams.
Perhaps most importantly the Norwegian model has at its heart strong GP-led medical care support for patients out in the community – another reason why Scottish Conservatives have been right to highlight the crisis that SNP Ministers have presided over in Scotland’s GP service, which The Royal College of General Practitioners now predicts will see a shortfall of more than 850 GPs in Scotland by 2021.
I have to say I was full of envy for a Norwegian health and community care system which is able to see people admitted to hospital and discharged on the same day with the care and support package they need being put in place – it’s what we in Scotland should also be able to see for people.
It is looking like 2018 will be the year when SNP Ministers’ handling of the integration of health and social care in Scotland will really be judged.
For the sake of our NHS and the critical need to deliver care for some of the most vulnerable people in our society, I hope they listen to the growing concerns.