Our nation's health faces enormous challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown long-standing health inequalities into stark relief. With NHS and social care staff exhausted by the crisis and facing an even greater backlog of care, the unequal health outcomes exposed by the pandemic are at risk of becoming worse.
We live in challenging times, but it is how we choose to overcome these adversities that will make all the difference.
Listening leads to better care
The pandemic has been brutal, but it has proven the power of listening to service users' experiences. Our annual report makes it clear that listening to people's experiences, often in real-time, alerts decision-makers to problems quickly, helps them find out what's working and ultimately leads to better care.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the feedback you share with Healthwatch has become even more essential, helping NHS and social care services respond to ever-changing circumstances.
Last year, a record two million people used Healthwatch to either have their say on care or to get the right advice and information. Thanks to you, we have highlighted the pressing issues in health and care and suggested the improvements you want to see.
Here are just a few examples of how your experiences have helped result in change:
- The harrowing stories that people shared with us about being discharged from the hospital with little or no support at the start of the pandemic led to new Government guidance to ensure this does not happen again.
- When the public was worried about how the NHS would use their GP data, we helped prevent issues by advising the NHS to be more transparent and give people more time to opt-out.
- Within eight weeks of the launch of NHS 111 First, we provided rapid feedback to help identify teething issues and improve the public's experience.
Moving issues up the agenda
Sharing your experiences can also help move issues up the agenda. Thanks to your feedback, we've been able to alert the NHS to problems getting emergency dental care at the start of the pandemic when dental practices closed for eleven weeks.
With stories of people left in pain and resorting to 'DIY' repair methods, NHS England increased emergency dental care and clarified how the public could get help.
However, when services re-opened, safety restrictions meant that dentists could see fewer people, and even more of you came forward to tell us you found it hard to get treatment.
NHS dentistry was not accessible or affordable even before COVID-19 struck for some of you. The pandemic has compounded these issues, and the impact has been felt most by those who can least afford private treatment.
Because of this inequality, we've repeatedly called for urgent and radical reform of NHS dentistry. Only by changing how services are commissioned can we create a system where everyone has equal access to affordable dental care. Although real change is yet to come, I'm committed to doing all we can to push for reform.
Building a better service for all
With nearly six million people now waiting for treatment because of delays caused by the pandemic, we are committed to helping address the health and care challenges our nation faces.
Healthwatch nationally and locally will use the experiences you share with us to help services understand:
- Who cannot access care or have had their needs overlooked or ignored?
- Where has people’s journey between services broken down and needs fixing?
- Where is support working, and how can this good practice be spread further?
But, with the NHS and social care system on the verge of major reform, we have a chance to go further. The introduction of Integrated Care Systems and the Government's injection of extra funding to bolster care gives us a unique opportunity to design services that truly work for local people, reduce unequal health outcomes, and are sustainable.
We will work hard with the new NHS system to build on what we’ve learned by:
- Championing equality and inclusion.
- Helping services to reach out to every section of the community
- Hard-wiring people’s views, especially those not being heard, into the planning and running of services.
It's all about you
Realising the opportunity to ensure services work better in a post-pandemic world will also need you. As our annual report makes clear, positive change comes about when people are willing to speak up, and services are prepared to act.
So join us. Share your care stories and experiences with us, whether good or bad. Work with us to tackle the issues people have raised. Join our dedicated band of staff and volunteers.
Together we can help overcome the adversities we face now and build a better health and care service that works for everyone.