Soup in the village hall: How health chiefs hope volunteers can help save Norfolk and Waveney’s NHS
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2017
More patients will be prescribed walking classes, soup socials and debt advice by GPs rather than medication under a radical plan to transform the NHS in Norfolk and Waveney.
Former Labour health secretary Patricia Hewitt, who now oversees the group of health chiefs tasked with revolutionising the region's NHS, today reveals some of the plans to save more than £300m over the next four years.
Every area of the country is going through the changes, led by groups called Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships (STPs), to save cash as budgets fail to keep up with soaring demand on the health service.
This year alone the STP is hoping to save £150m from the region's £2.6 billion health and social care budget.
In other areas of the country that is leading to the closure of A&E departments and maternity units.
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But in her first interview since taking up the role as independent chair of the STP in June, Ms Hewitt ruled out shutting hospital services.
'We are not looking at bed closures,' she said.
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Although the STP plans to free up hospital beds by treating more people at home, Ms Hewitt said demand would still grow on hospitals.
'If we don't do anything we would need to build another hospital to cope,' she said. 'It becomes wholly unaffordable. What we are looking to do is stabilise admissions.'
She wants to encourage voluntary groups to help the NHS and provide alternative treatments to patients who may be lonely or depressed.
'We are all used to going to the doctor and have them write a prescription for medicine. But what we are less used to is the idea that the doctor or nurse or social worker might give us a prescription for a walking group, soup and sandwiches in the local village hall, an Age UK befriending service.'
She said if financial problems were causing someone's anxiety, debt advice may be a better cure than anti-depressants.
And she wants to tap into the huge number of volunteer groups in Norfolk and Waveney to help.
It is known as 'social prescribing' and has already been piloted in parts of Norfolk.
'People tend to talk about an ageing population as a problem,' the former Labour MP said. 'Really it is the most wonderful opportunity.
'One of the things I love about Norfolk and Waveney is just the sheer number of people who are doing wonderful things - they are running voluntary organisations - it is very exciting and if we can mobilise more of that so that we don't see the NHS and social care system as the people who are going to fix every problem, because they can't, then we really have a chance of making the improvements which we all want to see.'
Few specific NHS reforms have been revealed by the STP despite around 18 months of work, but Ms Hewitt said changes to cardiac, radiology and neurology services would be revealed in the next few months
Away from treatment, there will also be changes to the NHS' IT system.
'We are well behind where we need to be,' she said. 'We've got IT systems which don't talk to each other; we've got masses of care and health records that are on paper when they ought to be on an electronic system. We are not in the 21st century when it comes to digital. That is a massive opportunity.'
The STP hopes to get money from NHS England to fund the IT work and the savings, Ms Hewitt believes, could be tens of millions of pounds.
One small success she said the STP had already enjoyed was treating elderly people who fell.
They have introduced a 'falls vehicle' which responds to the call rather than a full ambulance crew and keeps the patients out of hospital.
The fragmented NHS of Norfolk and Waveney, where five different groups called CCGs commission services will also change, with more services merging and some organisations expected to go.
Despite the work of the STP, few patients and the public have heard of it. An EDP online survey last month showed 66.5pc of respondents had never heard of the STP and 89pc did not know how to make their voices heard in the changes.
Ms Hewitt, who works two days a week for the STP, admitted there needed to be much more public engagement and pledged there would be.
A fiery meeting in St Andrew's Hall over the summer held by Healthwatch showed the strength of resistance to STPs which some see as a vehicle for massive cuts to the NHS which will mean worse patient care and open up the door to further privatisation.
But Ms Hewitt said: 'The STP is the vehicle through which we bring everybody together; design what we want the future to look like, which will include almost certainly fewer organisations, but certainly much simpler commissioning and administrative arrangements.'
•No more mental health beds
One of the big challenges facing the NHS in the region is the state of its mental health service which was put back into special measures last week.
The embattled Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust (NSFT) has spent millions of pounds of NHS money sending patients to beds hundreds of miles away and to a private hospital in Mundesley. That hospital has also been rated 'inadequate' by inspectors.
But Ms Hewitt was reluctant to commit to providing more mental health beds, despite inspectors saying the NSFT didn't have enough.
She wants to see more money put into prevention and earlier intervention across the health service which is cheaper than treatment.
That would mean helping people with mental health problems as early as possible and prevent it escalating to a crisis.
Ms Hewitt added it was not the job of the STP to be another layer of management or hold the NSFT to account - that is the job of their board.
•Find out more about the STP here