At the start of this year, few people would have disputed the value of the NHS to our nation. But its importance in every aspect of our lives – not just to our health, but to our jobs, our businesses, our schools and beyond – has rarely been as clear as it is today. Right now, we can feel proud that our world-leading national health service has coped at a time of almost unimaginable crisis. Stories of heroic frontline staff and patient testimonials have shone a light on its ability to provide high quality, sustained emergency care in even the toughest of conditions.
But these impressive efforts are designed for a sprint, not a marathon. In the long term, we risk a widening health inequality across many disease areas, as well as putting unsustainable pressure on our doctors and nurses. Which is why we must act now to build a healthier and more resilient Britain for the future, in which every individual in our society plays a role.
Put simply, it’s time to build a mindset and health system that keeps people well, not just makes them better. The aptly named new National Institute for Health Protection has recognised that protecting our nation’s health – and health system – is a top priority if we are to better equip ourselves against Covid-19.
But the government also needs to re-prioritise health as one our nation’s greatest assets – and empower our population to do the same.The link between the health of our nation and the health of our economy is clear to see and across government ambition must now shape policy and lead change that recognises the far-reaching impact of health.
Covid-19 has exposed the deep links between our health and the economy. Ill health reduces the UK’s workforce earning capacity and costs the NHS in treatment. Healthy people earn a consistent wage, have the capacity to spend more, and require fewer medical interventions or treatment – not to mention the impact on mental health and wellbeing.
This is clear when we look at the impact of specific conditions. Musculoskeletal problems, like arthritis and back pain, are the cause of 30 million working days lost each year, amounting to £2.5bn in lost productivity.i A recent report, commissioned by Pfizer, found that cancer costs the UK £7.6bn a year in lost wages, benefit payments and mortality, with a third of patients losing income following diagnosis.ii And a hefty £71bn – equivalent to a third of NHSE’s budget – is spent every year by the government on mitigating the impacts of illness through covering costs such as disability or social care support.iii
The right approach could empower patients and protect the NHS. Recent events have prompted progress. Coronavirus has shown that, in this crisis, we are more willing to take responsibility for our own health – and to adopt new ways of doing so. It has also accelerated innovation in the delivery of healthcare.
We have seen significant growth in patients accessing primary healthcare remotely, at home – reducing the spread of infection and keeping the vulnerable out of hospital, while maintaining access to vital medical expertise and treatment. We need to capture practical and behavioural gains, such as these, to deliver long-term benefit that goes way beyond a short-term fix. Of course, the right treatment, for the right patient, in the right place should always be the goal.
But if we get it right, just imagine a future where patients needing traditional in-patient care, such as chemotherapy, can receive elements of their treatment safely and comfortably at home. We’re not there yet, but it is a vision that is not as far away as it may sound. The benefits for patients are clear – but for the wider system, a more efficient, established home care system will ensure hospitals have more resources and capacity to treat those that do need to be in a clinical setting.
The global race is well upon us now as governments around the world seek to attract investment from life science companies. The UK has the opportunity to be at the forefront of this if we can accelerate the pace with which science, data and technology are coming together, put research at the heart of clinical practice and recognise the value of innovation to our society.
Coronavirus has highlighted that lots of us are living with underlying health conditions, while one in five deaths in the UK, even before the pandemic, was considered “avoidable”.iv A focus on prevention can help to address these issues, while also alleviating the annual “winter pressures” of ill health.
The UK is a world leader in childhood immunisation, but there are other vaccines available that can help keep people healthy at every stage of life. Many of the UK’s most vulnerable adults are eligible for a range of vaccinations against infectious diseases – from pneumoniav, to shingles and whooping cough. But uptake falls far below what it could be. In the last year in England, just one in ten (12.9 per cent) of 65-year-olds were immunised against pneumonia.
For younger people in “at risk” groups, uptake rates were as low as one in four for patients with illnesses such as chronic liver disease.viAnd while those over 70 are eligible for vaccination against shingles, by the age of 76, around one in four are still unvaccinated.vii Even in the case of flu, many of those who were eligible last year failed to get vaccinated, including less than half of those in “higher risk” groups, from people with an existing health condition to pregnant women.viii
By encouraging more people to take advantage of the vaccines they are eligible for, we can help protect millions of people and ensure our health system is better equipped to deal with a potential second wave of Covid-19. But we shouldn’t stop here. Vaccination is just one example where a greater emphasis on prevention could reap significant rewards for our national health and resilience.
There are many other areas in which we can make significant strides towards keeping people well, such as in smoking, where there are still untapped opportunities to support the UK’s seven million smokers in giving up. With “Stoptober” just around the corner, a public health push to help more smokers than ever before to quit for good could make a significant difference to our nation’s health.
Such measures will help prevent ill health. But to truly reappraise and rebuild our way of thinking, we should consider creating a new Health Index that puts health on a par with our GDP. In doing so, we can capture the return on investment to the economy from expenditure on health – in turn, helping us to make good health a matter of national priority.
My industry has a key role to play and as we have shown throughout this crisis, our focus on human health and bringing breakthroughs to change patients’ lives is our singular purpose: but radical collaboration between businesses, charities, the NHS and wider government – as well as UK citizens – is now needed. It is time to work together, not only to make people better today, but to keep all of Britain “well” long into the future.
Ben Osborn is UK country manager at Pfizer.
Job code: PP-PFE-GBR-2947 Date of preparation: August 2020
Please note, these reference links are provided for convenience, but Pfizer does not guarantee/own the content unless otherwise specified.
i. The NHS Long Term Plan – 2019. https://www.longtermplan.nhs.uk/. Last accessed 15 August 2020.
ii. Cancer Costs: A ripple effect analysis of cancer’s wider impact – Demos, 2020. https://demos.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Cancer-Costs-FINAL-Jan-20…. Last accessed 15 August 2020.
iii. A combination of Department for Work and Pensions spending £52.7bn to support people with disabilities, and a further £18bn spent by councils and local government on social care. This is equivalent to almost one third of NHS England’s budget. Source: DWP Guidance: Benefit expenditure and caseload tables – 2018. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/benefit-expenditure-and-casel…. Last accessed 15 August 2020.
iv. Avoidable mortality in the UK: 2018, Office for National Statistics. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/…. Last accessed 15 August 2020.
v. Pneumococcal Polysaccharide Vaccine (PPV) coverage report, England, April 2019 to March 2020. Last accessed 15 August 2020. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploa…
vi. Pneumococcal Polysaccharide Vaccine (PPV) coverage report, England, April 2019 to March 2020. Last accessed 15 August 2020. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploa…
vii. Shingles (quarter 3) vaccine coverage report (adults eligible from April to December 2019 and vaccinated to end-March 2020) in England. Last accessed 15 August 2020. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploa…
viii. Seasonal influenza vaccine uptake in GP patients: winter season 2019 to 2020. Last accessed 15 August 2020. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploa…