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Prime Minister Gordon Brown pledged to make the NHS more personal this week, promising quicker test results and better access to GPs, “because we know that being unwell is not just a nine to five problem.”
In his first speech to the Labour party conference as prime minister, Mr Brown promised an expansion of the screening services for breast and bowel cancer, quicker access to cancer treatment for more people, and £15bn (€21bn; $30bn) for research over the next 10 years. His long term plans include a regular health check for every adult in Britain.
“Our great achievement of the 1940s was a service universal to all. In 2007 we need a service that is accessible to all and personal to all,” said Mr Brown in an impassioned speech, during which he expressed his gratitude to the NHS for saving the sight in one of his eyes.
He added, “I want an NHS [that is] personal to you because you are seen by a consultant in a matter of days, not months; personal to you because there is a right to be given x ray results quickly and time to discuss your treatment; personal to you because we know that being unwell is not just a nine to five problem.
“And so we will make GP hours more friendly to families, open up opportunities to see a GP near your place of work as well as your home, expand walk-in centres [and] medical services at pharmacies, and ensure a better service from NHS Direct.”
The latest proposals mean that breast cancer screening will be available to all women between the ages of 47 and 73, an expansion from the current age range of 50 to 70. And from 2010 bowel screening will be extended from the present 60 to 69 age range to include men and women up to the age of 75.
The Department of Health has guaranteed that all patients with breast problems, not just those with suspected cancer, would get an appointment with a specialist within two weeks of being referred. Results from smear tests would be available within 14 days instead of the six weeks that more than half of women who are screened currently have to wait.
In addition, women who are referred for further investigation through the breast cancer screening programme—who are currently excluded from the 62 day referral to treatment guarantee given to women referred urgently by their GP—will be fast tracked and put on the same priority level, to ensure that they too get prompt treatment.
To tackle the problems of methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridium difficile, Mr Brown promised extra funds for a “deep clean” of hospital wards. The number of matrons on wards will be doubled to 5000. They, along with ward sisters, will have the power to fire contractors who do not meet standards of cleanliness and to report other safety concerns “to hospital boards and a stronger Healthcare Commission.”
Alan Johnson, the health secretary, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme ahead of his own speech to the conference that he intended to work with GPs and the BMA to develop a “much more convenient service” and that he did not want a “confrontational approach.”
He said, “The NHS was developed as a kind of monolithic organisation; it was a creature of its time, very centrally driven. That has changed. What we are trying to do . . . is to get local practitioners looking out towards their patients rather than up towards Whitehall for their tablet of stone.”
In his speech Mr Johnson announced that tackling “unacceptable inequalities” in health between rich and poor people would be his priority over the next few months, and he reiterated Mr Brown's call for individualising care.
“This is an unprecedented opportunity to shape an NHS which is clinically led and locally driven, constantly focused on a personalised service for the patient. Centralising care where necessary, for instance for stroke and cancer patients, but localising where possible, so that patients can be treated closer to home. To achieve this, government needs to get behind health staff, not stand in their way,” he told the conference.
Commenting on Mr Johnson's speech, Hamish Meldrum, the chairman of the BMA, said, “Mr Johnson's words sound good, but we now have to see if they are followed by action. A ‘clinically led' and ‘locally driven' NHS is what the BMA has been calling for for many months, and we hope the government is sincere when it claims to be following this goal. It is essential that the government engages with the medical profession—not just a few hand picked senior doctors, but doctors working at grassroots level.”
On the call for general practices to be open in places and at times that suit patients, Dr Meldrum said, “GPs are already working extremely hard to benefit their local populations, and a recent government survey showed that well over eight out of 10 patients were satisfied with access to their practices. It is ironic that on one hand Mr Johnson talks about clinical engagement, and yet when it comes to GPs' hours he does not approach the BMA. We are always willing to talk to the health secretary about how the service we provide can be improved, but obviously increased opening times and services need considerable resources.”