Crisis or same as usual - What’s the state of the NHS currently?

Many NHS protests have been held across the country at changes to the healthcare system, but is it i

Many NHS protests have been held across the country at changes to the healthcare system, but is it in crisis or not? Picture: James Bass - Credit: James Bass

This will be my final column for this paper because after today I am leaving my job as health correspondent for Archant.

It's been a whirlwind 22 months since I joined the team at the EDP and Norwich Evening News - and any illusions I had back then about knowing lots about the NHS have been well and truly shattered.

The question I'm asked the most by friends and people I meet when I talk about my job is: 'So what really is the state of the NHS now then - is it actually in crisis?'

My standard response is to ask if they want the long answer or the even longer answer - both of which will bore them into wishing they'd never asked in the first place.

But it seems to me the truthful answer depends on where you stand and how you define 'crisis'.

When one considers that the NHS' core aim is to make people better, I don't see how you can call the current situation a crisis.

Advances in medicine have vastly improved outcomes in many areas - cancer, stroke, and trauma - to name but a few.

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And waiting times since the turn of the year 2000 have been far better than before, with accountability also at an all-time high thanks to the increasing publishing of NHS performance figures.

However the last two years have seen record numbers of patients waiting too long for A&E treatment, being kept on trolleys, or stuck in hospital beds because of social care problems. This is still a very small number of patients compared to those who are treated effectively every day, but no doubt some of those who have the bad luck of being affected would endorse the 'crisis' description.

On a financial level the question is just as difficult to answer.

Many observers, most recently Nicholas Timmins in Prospect Magazine, point out that there have been concerns about the unsustainability of the NHS as far back as in 1948 - when it was set up.

And as Mr Timmins points out - whenever a government has looked at ways of funding the NHS differently - it has always shied away from doing so.

The difference now is that the financial squeeze is affecting larger patient groups - and demand is going to grow at record levels.

So there is little time to act before the NHS becomes unanimously acknowledged as a system in crisis.