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How can a preventative approach to health and care help Labour deliver for patients?

Experts came together at the New Statesman’s Path to Power conference to discuss how a new government could transform the nation’s health.

Labour has pledged to deliver a “prevention first” revolution which will enable people to live healthier and happier lives, driving economic growth and reducing pressure on the NHS in the process. But how can this be achieved?

This was the question at hand during a panel at the New Statesman’s Path to Power conference last month. The panel was sponsored by GSK, the British multinational biopharma company.

A wide-ranging preventative agenda was discussed. Topics included integrated healthcare systems, future technologies, collaboration between national and local governments, and how industry, policymakers and healthcare professionals could encourage risk-reducing behaviours, such as healthy eating and physical activity.

Appearing on the panel was Chris Thomas, head of the commission on health and prosperity at the IPPR think tank; Professor Raghib Ali, CEO, chief investigator and chief medical officer at the UK’s largest medical research programme Our Future Health; Mike Indian, head of government affairs for Bupa Global, India and UK; and Dr Mark Toms, UK medical director at GSK.

The session began by busting the myth that investing funds into prevention is a “waste” of government money. “Healthy lives are incredibly important to the economy,” said Thomas in his opening remarks. He referenced IPPR’s commission on health and prosperity, a three-year research programme exploring how health and prosperity interact, with a view to producing a wider policy framework to bolster both. When more people fall ill, Thomas said, an individual’s “employment prospects suffer, [and] the [wider] labour market weakens”.

Investment in healthy lives from a future Labour government, therefore, could not only bolster the economy, but also reverse the trend and prevent public spending for the NHS rising in the long term. “If we have a healthy population,” said Thomas, “that means the NHS expenditure as a share of GDP remains pretty much flat; if we have an unhealthy population, it becomes hugely unsustainable in terms of the amount of total government expenditure it takes.”

Toms concurred and said he sees Labour’s prevention agenda needing to focus on three “key areas”: the role that health technology and innovation can play in preventing ill health; how data can be utilised to better target care interventions; and how to give better support for people to manage their conditions at home. Partnership, Toms added, between government and industry is “key” to preventing and managing ill health.

He cited an example of when GSK worked with the GP Federation to identify and invite eligible patients to get NHS vaccinations in Bury – one of the most deprived areas of the country – which helped to boost uptake rates for the national immunisation programme in the area. “We would be keen to do more of that kind of work across the healthcare system,” said Toms. “We need to be able to have those partnerships with the healthcare system. We need the commitment to pathways for the adoption of new technologies and new innovations that can benefit patients and prevent ill health. And we need to really be able to access much more joined-up healthcare data to target those interventions.”

How funding is split was key for Ali in preventing ill health. “There has to be a rebalancing of resources – there has to be more money put into prevention,” he said. Investing more into health research as well as more “upstream” health services is crucial, he said. “The key is to continue investment into research and also shift the delivery of services more into the community, particularly through pharmacy,” said Ali. “We have very little investment in community service and pharmacy, where much of the preventative healthcare can be done.”

A focus for Indian was the role that technology can play in helping people be proactive in their own care. Any use of NHS data in future would have to be done with the full awareness and consent of individuals, he added. “That potential to have people have more ownership and insight over their data is very exciting,” he said, suggesting that people could use their own health data collected through smart devices to inform and support appointments with their GP in the future. “That’s a very empowering thing we could give them, and I think it could be something that could be revolutionary.”

It’s a point echoed by Toms, who said there are “multiple uses” for artificial intelligence (AI) in preventative healthcare. “But the critical thing is that AI needs good-quality data to work on,” he said. “So unless we get that joined-up data, get… healthcare records – ideally, in a single point of access – it’s very difficult to do that work.”

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