Challenge of ageing NI only just begun

Letter to the editor
Letter to the editor

Where do you start when describing health and social care here?

Serious problems are in the news almost every day. It would be wrong to ever downplay those problems. And yet they’re not the full story.

The most recent health survey showed compliments from the public far outnumbering complaints.

That chimes with what we so often hear anecdotally – praise and gratitude regularly voiced after personal experiences.

The most pressing challenges facing the system can often involve delayed access to care rather than the quality of care received.

Far too many people are on unacceptably long waiting lists. Emergency departments have been under severe stress for many months now. Pressures are also faced by GPs, the ambulance service and in domiciliary care, while staffing gaps across the system are adding significantly to challenges.

None of this sadly should come as any surprise.

The Bengoa report – welcomed across the political spectrum [and published 18 months ago] – detailed how an outdated system would increasingly struggle with increasing demand. Professor Bengoa likened it to standing on a burning platform.

The Department of Health Twitter account – @healthdpt – last week highlighted some key statistics to show the growing pressures.

A lot of the growing demand for care is down to an amazing success story of health care – longer life expectancy. The details are striking.

The Bengoa report noted bluntly: “In terms of costs, users aged over 65 account for more than two-fifths of HSC spending – 42%, compared to their population share of 14%. Whereas the average cost of treating a 55 to 59-year-old stands at £1,970 per head, this rises to over £6,000 for 75-79 year olds and £14,000 for the over 85s.”

The challenge is really only just beginning.

The number of people aged 85 and over here has quadrupled since 1971. It is projected to do something similar in the next half century.

Happily, there is a way forward – summed up in the single word “transformation”.

Facing these and other issues, it is clear big conversations and big decisions are needed.

That doesn’t just mean reshaping the organisation of hospital services. It also means an increasing focus on primary care, changing the face of your GP clinic, giving people more care close to or in their homes, helping them manage their conditions and offering alternatives to hospital referrals. That route won’t be quick and won’t always be easy.

The good news is we are already on it.

David Gordon, communications director, Department of Health