George Freeman is Under Secretary of State for Life Sciences in the departments of Health and Business, and is MP for Mid-Norfolk.
The technological revolutions which have transformed so much of our economy and society are about to transform healthcare. It is a central plank of our long term plan to create an NHS fit for the twenty-first century and stop the unsustainable cycle of winter pressures.
The internet and digital mobile device revolution have transformed banking, television, retail, sport and education. During the next five years, the scale and pace of technological change will do the same for healthcare and our NHS, transforming patient experience and the way our NHS works. And it is the Conservatives who are going into the coming General Election with the vision and the investment to make this new world of healthcare a reality for patients.
NHS England recently set out its Five Year Forward View of the challenges facing the NHS in the next Parliament. It is a hugely exciting and challenging document which throws down a gauntlet to all of us in health policy: we have to tackle the underlying challenge of productivity in our health system.
With an ageing society, chronic disease ‘timebombs’ of dementia, obesity and diabetes, and a twentieth century model of healthcare which sees far too little spent on prevention and too much in the most expensive setting of all (hospital), often treating patients who would be better treated elsewhere, we simply can’t afford to duck the urgent issue of health and care innovation and NHS modernisation any longer.
An NHS designed on a 1948 model is struggling to accommodate the explosion in health demand in our unrecognisably different society today. With the demands of an ageing population, a fundamental truth is becoming ever-clearer: you can’t have a modern, innovative NHS able to deal with that rising demand without a vibrant economy to fund it.
Because of our long-term economic plan, the Conservatives are now able to put £2 billion a year extra funding for frontline NHS services as a down payment on the NHS’s own long-term plan for a strong and sustainable future. We will also use £1.1 billion in fines from the banks who took advantage of society to invest in local GP and community services that will give patients access to advanced care, such as chemotherapy and dialysis, in their local communities.
Such investment underlines the truth that it is the Conservatives who have the only convincing narrative on healthcare, based on the economic credibility to invest in a modern NHS. As the first Minister dedicated to health technology and NHS innovation, and having worked for 15 years with NHS researchers and industry developing medical technology before coming to Parliament, my role is to make sure the NHS is equipped to be the world leader in the latest medical innovations and healthcare technologies, set out by Jeremy Hunt recently as one of his four pillars of a modern NHS.
Whether it is getting access to life-saving drugs, better integrating the patient experience or finding efficiencies as set out by Simon Stevens in his Five Year Forward View, embracing the new world of innovation and health technology is central to tackling both the ‘health deficit’ and ushering in the new era of patient empowerment in twenty-first century healthcare.
Indeed, it is already changing the way we think about health. Imagine the time when you can skype your GP – getting near-instant diagnosis and advice rather than having to queue at the surgery and waiting days or weeks. This spring we will all have access to a summary of our GP record. In April, we will be able to book GP and hospital appointments online and order repeat prescriptions digitally. Imagine when every hospital is paperless, with health apps meaning that you can monitor your condition (or that of your loved one). This is our vision for a modern NHS and empowered ‘health citizens’.
That’s why we have invested in the £300m Genomics England project, launched by David Cameron in 2012 and now moving to full implementation, making the UK the only country in the world to sequence the full genome of 100,000 patients and combine with NHS clinical records, to make sure the NHS leads in 21stC genomic medicine. Soon, drugs and treatment will be designed to meet your needs. This means genetic cancer diagnostic tests delivering personalised cancer chemotherapy created around your specific genetic profile to reduce side effects and dramatically improve your cure and recovery.
And just as the medicine changes, so will the political debate on healthcare. If we are to tackle the challenge laid down by Stevens, which we must, we will need to break out of the old straitjackets which have bedevilled political debate on the NHS for decades. We owe it to the patients, taxpayers and citizens of this country – and to ourselves as serious politicians – to abandon the stale political ‘Punch and Judy’, and confront the really challenging issues we face as a society.
For far too long, the debate has been characterised by Labour arrogantly claiming ownership of the NHS by virtue of Nye Bevan’s hand in creating it in 1948 (nearly 70 years ago) and supplementing this with lies and scaremongering about Conservative motives. And yet from Lady Thatcher’s investment, to Andrew Lansley’s decision to put clinical leadership at the heart of the service, and David Cameron, Jeremy Hunt and George Osborne’s leadership in protecting the NHS budget, we know that the Conservative Party has always been steadfast in its support for the NHS.
Conservatives see a modern NHS not as a liability in the competitive global enterprise economy of the 21stC, but as a key plank of a modern economy and a productive society. Conservatives understand you can’t have a strong NHS without a strong economy.
I’d go further: we can’t have a strong, modern economy without a strong NHS. Comprehensive, taxpayer-funded healthcare provides a unique platform for this country’s entrepreneurial genius – unlike the fragmentation, cost-inefficiency and inequality of US healthcare which is a major barrier to American competitiveness. Ask any entrepreneur if they’d rather start a business in the US healthcare system or ours, and you’ll get a clear answer.
Sadly, while the Conservatives look forward, Labour wishes to turn the clock back, even now abandoning the progressive reforms they introduced in government. There was barely a word about innovation in Andy Burnham’s Labour conference speech, and no concept of how this digital revolution can utterly transform the way healthcare is delivered.
While we Conservatives are talking about stratified cancer drugs, digital health apps and a new age of personalised medicine, Labour are stuck in a “treasury-tag” world – the NHS as a museum to be referenced in time for a leadership campaign; a vehicle for the Old Labour politics of its leaders rather than for 21st century medicine for each patient.
With five months to go before the country decides, it is fast becoming clear that, while Labour play the old partisan NHS politics, only the Conservatives have a long-term vision for NHS leadership of twenty-first healthcare.