1 September 2015

Britain’s NHS should offer treatments, not treats


I’m not a medical expert but I am pretty sure that if someone gave me a free summer house or bought me, say, a pedalo ride or an iPad, it would probably make me feel better. So it comes as no surprise that our esteemed medical professionals have discovered that, by handing out millions of pounds in free goodies to the long term sick, they have the power to improve their wellbeing.

An investigation by Pulse magazine has discovered that millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money has been spent on patients to give them what the NHS calls “treatments” but what the rest of us would probably more accurately call “treats”.  In all, £123 million will be spent on 4,800 patients this year under the remit of the NHS “personal health budget” scheme. That’s an average of more than £2,500 per patient.

To be fair, on paper, the idea behind personal health budgets sounds perfectly sensible.  Introduced last October, they were supposed to give patients suffering from long term conditions or disabilities greater choice and control over the healthcare and support they receive, rather than just getting what they were given.

So far, so good. But somehow, somewhere along the line, the theory didn’t lend itself to the practice and the NHS staff operating this scheme took leave of their collective senses.  Instead of offering choices about, for example, which physiotherapist to be treated by, the NHS has been handing out cash like there’s no tomorrow to fund what most of us would view less as medical needs and more as whimsical luxuries.  The treats (sorry, “treatments”) have included a pedalo ride, horse riding lessons, satnavs, tablet computers, a Wii game console, aromatherapy, shiatsu therapy and Indian head massages. One family even went on a taxpayer-funded holiday to allow a patient to “re-establish relations” with their children, while another patient got the funding to build a summer house to give them “their own space”.

Now, if the long term sick need vital equipment, treatments, home adaptions and 24-hour carers, then by all means let’s spend NHS money to provide them with the help they need. It’s what a civilised society should do.  But this scheme is – and please excuse the technical terminology here – taking the mickey.  Most people feel a lot happier after eating a big slice of chocolate cake, but we don’t offer chocolate cake free on the NHS, do we? Or at least I think we don’t. These days, who knows?

And this scandal (and make no mistake about it, this is a scandal) isn’t just about a few cheeky patients pulling a fast one on the NHS. This is about NHS medical staff agreeing to hand over taxpayers’ cash to patients to spend on these specific items. That’s why we know what they spent the money on. As a statement from NHS England makes clear: “The spending must be agreed between the individual and the NHS, meet the patient’s individual health needs and achieve the desired outcomes.”
A new summer house or pedalo ride may well achieve the desired outcome for the patient – as it would do for most of us – but it certainly doesn’t achieve the desired outcome for the taxpayers who fund the NHS.

To add insult to injury, this scheme is not just a foolish waste of money by one misguided hospital trust. This isn’t a one-off. On the contrary, this is a national scheme and NHS England’s ‘Five Year Forward View’ includes plans for a “major expansion” of the budget!

The NHS staff involved have been happy to part with our hard-earned cash but they have also taken leave of both their senses and their morals. It is not just silly, it is downright immoral for scarce NHS resources to be spent on anything that isn’t vital when we can’t afford to fund life-saving new cancer treatments. Every pound that goes on a pedalo ride, is a pound lost to cancer care, to A&E and to maternity services.

We all – each of us, whether an NHS patient or an employee – have a moral responsibility to only use NHS resources when we genuinely need them. The NHS staff who handed out this cash and the patients who received it should hang their heads in shame – and pay the money back. The NHS can’t be a service that offers anything and everything to everyone all of the time. We have to make difficult choices.

If the NHS can’t afford to pay for treatment for every patient in need, then it certainly can’t afford to give treats to every patient who quite fancies a pedalo ride or a nice holiday with their kids.

Julia Hartley-Brewer is a journalist and broadcaster. A former political editor and LBC Radio presenter, she is a regular on TV shows such as Question Time and Have I Got News For You, and on Radio 4’s Any Questions.