Morning in the NHS?

David Furness, IHPN Director of Policy and Delivery, argues that now, more than ever, we need to be positive about good news in the NHS when we find it

What links Ronald Reagan with a hospital car park in South London and a building site in Oldham? I’ll admit that it isn’t Hollywood glamour or Californian sunshine that connects the 40th president of the United States of America with a patch of tarmac in Roehampton and a new-build off the B6194.

But Ronald Reagan was famed, among other things, for his optimism and the stark contrast he drew with his predecessor, Jimmy Carter. While Carter had identified a “crisis of confidence” and seemed to preside over a sense of national malaise, Reagan famously declared that it was “Morning in America”.

And a similar sense of optimism is much needed in today’s NHS. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the headlines asking “Why is the NHS in its worst ever crisis?” (FT, 3 Jan) and to agree that “You Don’t Have to Be a Doctor to Know How Much Trouble the N.H.S. Is In” (NYT, 17 March). I participated recently in a BBC Manchester discussion that sought to understand “What is wrong with the NHS?”.

With a sense of crisis comes a sense of pessimism – 62% of the public think that standards in the NHS will get worse over the next 12 months with only 9% thinking they will improve.

Which brings me to the car park and the building site – and grounds for optimism. And while it may be too early to, like Reagan, declare that it’s “Morning in the NHS” – it’s right to highlight some amazing improvements in patient care that might just be the first rays of sunshine.

First the car park. Or, more accurately – what was parked in the car park. In this case it was a state-of-the-art mobile surgical theatre provided by Vanguard Healthcare Solutions. Vanguard (which is a member of IHPN) have invested in dozens of up-to-date mobile facilities and partner with NHS trusts across the country to rapidly expand their theatre capacity. This allows the NHS to make meaningful progress in tackling care backlogs quickly and effectively.

What particularly struck me when I visited Vanguard were two things. First was those mobile facilities – far from being second best – are something that staff love working in. They are designed to optimise patient flow and enable clinical teams to deliver the best possible care to NHS patients.

Second was that just next door to the mobile theatre is a new, permanent modular structure, theatre suite that Vanguard have constructed on the Trust estate. It took just five months from the first conversation between the NHS and Vanguard to opening the doors to a brand new, four theatre, surgical hub. What an amazing contrast to the prevailing narrative of an NHS that is failing to cope.

And so, to the Oldham building site where Alliance Medical (another IHPN member) is putting the finishing touches to the new Community Diagnostic Centre (CDC). Alliance has worked in full partnership with the NHS Northern Care Alliance on the design, spec and build of the new facility. The new CDC opened just a few weeks ago and provides the town with a multi-modality facility where a full range of diagnostic tests are carried out – everything from MRI scans through to the assessment of sleep apnoea.

Staff from both Alliance and the local NHS work side by side in the CDC and, again, what struck me was just how pleased they were to be working there – with many commenting that it felt so ‘positive’ among the many challenges the NHS undoubtedly faces.

More importantly, the experience for patients is excellent too. The dedicated design increases productivity with many patients receiving their test results on the same or the next day – a big improvement. And the convenient location (and free car park!) means that the CDC really is in the heart of the community.

Both of these examples show the partnership between the NHS and the independent sector at its best – bringing the expertise and resources of the independent sector to support the NHS to make real improvements in patient access and care.

Both of these examples show the partnership between the NHS and the independent sector at its best – bringing the expertise and resources of the independent sector to support the NHS to make real improvements in patient access and care.

Emphasising this spirit of optimism isn’t to overlook or underplay the many real and serious challenges faced by the NHS. But we need to choose an optimistic, positive outlook about what the NHS can achieve for patients if we are to avoid succumbing to our very own crisis of confidence and resign ourselves to inevitable decline.

Stories like Vanguard in South London and Alliance in Oldham remind me that amid the gloom there are great stories of innovation, investment and improvement from independent sector partnerships with the NHS. We need to hear more of them.