The NHS Long Term Plan (LTP) is an outline for how the nation’s public health service must develop over the next ten years to continue providing high-quality treatment to patients. NHS England Chief Executive, Simon Stevens, officially launched the LTP in 2019, just months before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Originally, it set out bold ambitions for the health service over the coming decade, including modernisation and action on addressing inequalities. But, thanks to the pandemic, how it will now evolve is no longer as clear cut.
While COVID-19 is a catalyst for some positive change, many commentators are worried that the NHS is focusing too much on coronavirus mitigation and not enough on patients with other health needs. Resources are flowing in the direction of disease control and away from other critical services, such as elective surgery.
Perhaps the most startling statistics concern the falls in patients numbers at both A&E and GP surgeries. According to the data, overall appointments (remote or in-person) fell by around 35% in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, with A&E visits down by a colossal 57% compared to the year before.
The Pandemic Is Accelerating Digital Service Delivery
There are obvious negatives as a result of the pandemic. However, evidence from the frontline suggests that it has accelerated the NHS transition to digital service delivery. During the first few months of 2020 (before the announcement of the national lockdown on March 21st), most GPs were still conducting face-to-face interactions with patients. However, within just three weeks, the situation changed dramatically.
Data from EMIS, for instance, suggests that telephone appointments rose by more than 145% between March 2nd and March 23rd and that face-to-face appointments declined by an equally staggering 70%. Home visits also fell by 64%, with more patients wanting to conduct appointments online.
Later, NHS England GP and deputy medical director, Raj Patel, stated that “GPs are quickly adapting to new technology – including phone and video consultations – to continue providing care differently.” While most health leaders were already signalling their intention to move to digital service delivery in the NHS LTP, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic quickly made it a reality. Today, over 99% of GP practices now offer some type of remote consultation, a process that the NHS formerly believed would take a decade to deliver.
The Pandemic Is Transferring Care Back To The Community
On another positive, the pandemic may also be helping to transfer care out of primary healthcare institutions – such as hospitals – and back into the community. Coronavirus patients are displacing older patients with manageable care needs, pushing them back out into the care community, a critical component of the original 2019 LTP. Therefore, COVID-19 has contributed to freeing up more hospital beds in the long-term.
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the NHS LTP, therefore, appears mixed. Some evidence suggests that it has accelerated the use of digital technology and driven transition of care into the community, which are both integral objectives of the LTP. But whether the LTP will be able to deliver on preventing illness and tackling inequalities remains to be seen.
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