Chief medical officer: The NHS has greatly improved our health but it now needs reform

The chief medical officer for NI Dr Michael McBride
The chief medical officer for NI Dr Michael McBride

I am immensely passionate and proud of our health service.

It is rightly cherished by all of us in society who use it and work in it.

Day and daily it touches and enhances people’s lives.

In the last 70 years, we have taken great strides towards improving our health and wellbeing.

Life expectancy rates have increased by around 14 years for males and females, infant mortality rates have decreased by over 90% and for the first time ever, more people are surviving cancer than dying from it.

Numerous vaccination programmes have been introduced to prevent TB, flu, tetanus, cervical cancer, measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough, rotavirus, pneumococcal disease, shingles and various strains of meningitis and worldwide, vaccines have eradicated smallpox and almost eradicated polio.

There is no doubt however that challenges remain.

The gap in health outcomes between the most and least deprived areas still remains far too wide.

Men in deprived areas live 6.6 years less than those in more affluent areas, while women live 4.5 years less.

Whilst we are living longer, we are not all living longer, healthy lives. 

As a population we are now living with more long term conditions such as obesity and diabetes and this will continue to put pressure on our health service.

The challenges we face in the health service will only get worse if we stand still.

We have to get to grips with unacceptable waiting times and mental health issues continue to challenge the service.

The only answer is to transform the health service so that it is better able to respond to the issues of our time.

We have had great success in controlling the infectious diseases such as TB, polio or even wound infections, which used to have such devastating impacts on our lives and were one of the major challenges for the health service in the 1940s.

But today we have a growing health crisis relating to modern lifestyles and diets.

We must reform, reshape and refocus our efforts towards prevention and to providing care and support for chronic conditions.

Alongside this we need to improve the health of people in Northern Ireland; improve the quality of experience of care; support and empower staff; and ensure sustainability of our services.

Yes, the health service can and will change.

I am ambitious and restless for that change, but part of the deal is that we all have to change too.

We must take responsibility for our own health and wellbeing.

Eating healthier, doing more physical activity, reducing our alcohol intake, saying no to smoking and drugs and taking care of our mental health, will all reduce the burden on the health service and keep it healthy.

To change our health service will take the same commitment and courage that it took to form it.

I would like to thank each and every person who works in the health service for their commitment and hard work.

Your dedication is second to none and does not go unnoticed.

Together we can make a difference.

• Dr Michael McBride is chief medical officer for Northern Ireland