It’s time we looked at innovative ways of tackling the nation’s health problems
Sophie Howe, Future Generations Commissioner for Wales sets out a new vision:
It’s that time of year again when shops are filling with Christmas gifts and I’m reminded winter is on the way.
Like many parents, I supply my family with vitamins as we try to prevent the inevitable latest strain of winter cold or even flu. GP waiting rooms fill up and media outlets report the annual surge in waiting times or demand for hospital beds.
Whilst these demands on our NHS can be greater in the winter, it’s recognised that overall pressures on the NHS are at an all-time high.
We cannot continue as we are. People are living longer and have more complex care needs. Climate change experts tell us to expect more ill health and modern life seems to take its toll on our mental and physical well-being.
Statistics from Mind Cymru show that 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health issue with just 12% of people in Wales reporting receiving any treatment.
Half the Welsh primary care workforce report a fifth of their practice time spent on social issues and on mental health-related work.
An estimated £21 million is believed to have been spent on the prescription of anti-depressants last year which says to me that we are missing opportunities to think about people’s well-being and the resources we have outside the NHS that can help.
It’s why, as Wales’ first Future Generations Commissioner, I’ll be championing change and just one of the ways we can do this is through something called social prescribing. You may have seen it on the news recently or watched the Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs on television.
Whilst medicine is obviously a vital part of keeping us healthy, it cannot solve everything and with antibiotics in particular it poses risks to us all in the long term.
Antimicrobial Resistance is now listed as a long term population risk in the UK’s National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies and the World Health Organisation says it is threatening our ability to meet the sustainable development goals.
We need a new approach to support GPs to offer patients access to services aimed at keeping them well, in some cases, avoiding the need for expensive medical interventions.
It can provide a non-medical referral option, often at a far cheaper cost to the NHS – reducing the demands on our medical professionals whilst improving the health and well-being of the person.
By taking a walk in our wonderful national parks or our vibrant cities, by providing an older person with a cup of tea and a chat, by developing an inspired programme that gets children and young people engaged with their local environment and heritage, we can achieve that win-win for our public services and for the well-being of Wales, continuing to lead the way with our innovative approach to putting the person at the heart of public services.
The Local Government Association has called for a ‘green prescription model’ where GPs prescribe outdoor exercise and physical activity to help reduce obesity levels and help well-being.
And here, the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) is a strong advocate for preventative services like these.
This approach to well-being services is being championed by Dr Richard Lewis, the Welsh Government appointed lead for primary care.
It isn’t a question of ‘why we should do it” (the case is made) but “how” Wales should move to this cost-effective, more sustainable form of helping us all to keep ourselves well.
In my mind this is essential in terms of ensuring that our NHS can continue to meet the demands of the future particularly with an ageing population.
Prevention is better than cure – both in terms of the money spent by our health and social services, but most importantly for the person who uses these services.
By encouraging people to get involved with their own treatment and get active in their communities, we empower them to be their own experts when it comes to well-being.
Wales’ Wellbeing of Future Generations Act is internationally ground-breaking. It requires us to think long term, seek to prevent problems occurring, involve people in decisions affecting them and to think about different ways of doing things that contribute to the seven well-being goals reflecting the Wales we want.
Social prescribing is a policy that is working to achieve this.
The challenge now is for our Government and Health Boards to help GPs and professionals by providing them with a properly resourced referral model drawing on the best all our public bodies, natural resources, third sector and social businesses have to offer. This is all our business.
We pride ourselves on building strong communities in Wales and we need to put keeping well at the heart of everyone.
This article was published in the Western Mail, Monday, October 3 2016