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Advertorial: sponsored by Pfizer

Future proofing the NHS

Prevention and innovation are key to ensuring the survival of the health service.

July 2023 marked the 75th anniversary of the NHS. Since its founding, the health service played an invaluable role both for UK citizens and for society more broadly. At present, it is experiencing some of the biggest challenges in his history; critical issues such as staff shortages, escalating cost pressures, and deteriorating infrastructure have collectively placed the NHS in a precarious position. Experts and policymakers are now consulting on how the NHS must adapt to endure present challenges and fortify itself against future uncertainties.

At the New Statesman‘s Future of Healthcare conference in October last year, a panel of experts delved into the lessons we can learn from the past 75 years, and how the UK’s health service can survive the next 75. The panel comprised Steve Brine MP, chair of the Health and Social Care Select Committee, Rachel Power, chief executive at the Patients Association, and Susan Rienow, country president at the pharmaceutical company Pfizer UK. It was chaired by Zoë Grünewald, policy and politics correspondent at the New Statesman.

As the industry expert and panel sponsor, Rienow emphasised that healthcare must keep pace with the speed of science to improve patient outcomes. She flagged the importance of the adoption of innovation, data and cross-system collaboration with industry for future-proofing the NHS, telling the panel that “the adoption of medicines and vaccines, better uptake of innovation, and earlier screenings can make a big difference, both in terms of system capacity and also in terms of patient outcomes”. Despite this, Rienow explained that access to new medicines and innovation in the UK is “lower and slower” than comparable European countries. “This puts UK patients at a disadvantage, and it also puts pressure on the NHS,” she said. From an industry perspective, Rienow argued this dynamic “also weakens our ability to conduct [commercial] clinical trials, which of course, [supports] the future of healthcare as well”.

Brine and Rienow were keen to emphasise the importance of prevention for the NHS’s survival. Where Rienow pointed to vaccines and particularly the success of the Covid-19 vaccine programme, Brine also talked about prevention in more holistic terms. The NHS was originally set up at a time where “health needs were very different”, he said. “People were living with less co-morbidities and there was, frankly, less demand on the system. But the population is ageing. We’re living more of our lives in poor health with multiple conditions, so we’ve got to put the focus on prevention and turn the NHS into a proactive rather than reactive service.” He explained that preventative healthcare crossed departmental and policy fields, across homes, places and work as well as the health service.  

Power concurred with Brine on the importance of promoting good health, but urged the panel not to forget the number of people on waiting lists who need care urgently. Around 6.5 million people are currently on NHS waiting lists in England alone. “We now have millions of people sitting waiting for elective treatments […] we don’t know how many people haven’t actually got to diagnostics and scanning to find out what the next stage in their treatment is,” Power said. She also cautioned that policymakers should not forget the immediate pressures on the NHS “right now… because we have to get to the back of that elective backlog, because I think that will help the rest of society in getting back to work as well”.

The panel agreed that good use of data is also integral for the NHS’s future. Rienow said utilising the full potential of data with the right handrails in place could be “absolutely transformative” for the NHS’s resilience and improving patient outcomes. “The NHS’s access to lifelong health data for 65 million people, it is unique in the world, it’s an asset that could be used to both transform population health, but also transform system delivery [and] service delivery as well,” she said, adding that the NHS needs to “reduce the fragmentation of that data” to be able to fully access its findings.

Power agreed, saying “joining up services around patients” by utilising a data platform could be hugely important and would vastly improve patient experience. “If we don’t have joined-up care, it’s not the best for patients, but it’s highly ineffective, and inefficient as a service.”

Power also stressed the importance of ensuring consent and bringing patients on the journey with the NHS in data transformation, to avoid the risk of the public “withdrawing consent for their data to be used because of a lack of communication and engagement with patients”.

Finally, the panel agreed that creating a positive environment for research and innovation in the UK was integral to creating an innovative NHS. “We have the best universities in the world in this country and we have some of the best researchers in the world,” Brine said when asked what he was feeling positive about. “We have all the tools here to deal with some of the chronic illnesses to get upstream on cancer prevention, we have so much to be positive about in this country.”

Rienow explained that although universal access to free healthcare at the point of service is “vital” for better outcomes, there’s still a way to go to improve system capacity and harness the power of the life sciences sector. She pointed to our European neighbours as great examples of countries that adopt new innovations in a “much faster way”. “If you look at things like the Innovative Medicines Fund here in the UK, which has been established to try to help with questions around data uncertainty and improve access to innovative medicines, it is still nowhere near as fast as what you see in some other countries like France and Germany, where they have an entirely different model of parallel processing and pricing negotiation together with patient access.”

In conclusion, the panel agreed that the 75th anniversary of the NHS serves as a critical juncture, highlighting the pressing challenges faced by the health service. The panel’s insights underscored the urgent need for innovation, data utilisation, and a proactive approach to prevention. Addressing immediate pressures, reducing fragmentation in data, and fostering a positive environment for research were identified as crucial steps to tackle current uncertainties and ensure the NHS’s resilience in the future.

This article is a New Statesman summary of a Pfizer-sponsored panel at the 2023 Future of Healthcare Conference, 31 October 2023.

[See also: Parkrun founder: “It’s everybody’s right to be active and healthy”]

Job code: PP-UNP-GBR-7993. Date of preparation: February 2024.

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