Systematic underfunding coupled with 'unachievable' efficiency savings will see the UK health and social care system pushed to breaking point, according to former health minister Norman Lamb.
Lamb presented a bleak outlook for the NHS should it maintain its current trajectory, telling last month's Astellas Innovation Debate that the UK is “sleepwalking towards a crash in our healthcare system”.
The Liberal Democrat health spokesperson drew comparison with other leading European countries' investment in their respective healthcare systems, concluding that the UK is “way behind” its peers.
That was bourn out by a report from The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) based on data collected across 2013. It found that while the average health expenditure in Europe was 8.9% of each state's GDP, the UK fell below this with only 8.5% of its GDP spent on healthcare.
Meanwhile, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland topped the ranking by each spending over 11% of their respective GDP on health. Only seven nations - five of which are countries that emerged from the old Soviet block – spent less than Britain on healthcare in 2013.
While reaching the European average in healthcare expenditure won't necessarily deliver a great system, Lamb conceded, “there are consequences for being so far behind the average”.
A £30bn NHS deficit has resulted in a government-imposed target of £20bn in efficiency savings - a feat that “no one that I've come across in the system believes is achievable”, Lamb said, adding that it had brought cuts to already overburdened services.
“I don't believe that we should tolerate that,” the former minister said. “I'm sure we all agree that in a civilized society, we should aim to have a first class health and care system.”
However, Sir David Nicholson - chief executive of the English NHS between 2006 and 2014 and also appeared at the Innovation Debate - said “there isn't a healthcare system in the world that's got it right”.
But he admitted that the UK health system had “lost perspective” and can learn from looking at other countries' healthcare models.
When asked whether the situation in the UK is critical, Nicholson said: “From a system perspective, I don't think it's critical … we can probably muddle through for another year.
“But some individual patients are really suffering so for them it's very critical.”
Seeking to address this failing of patients - and particularly those who suffer from mental ill health - Lamb has proposed a cross-party commission to find the solutions to the healthcare crisis that partisan politics is not coming up with.
Together with Labour's ex-health secretary Alan Milburn and Steven Dorrell, who served as health secretary in John Major's government in the 1990s, Lamb aims to move away from political point scoring and create a discourse that tackles the “choices that we've got as a society”.
How much we should pay for our health and care system and whether the NHS and social care system should be brought under one roof are top of the agenda, as well as introducing potentially controversial points raised in the Barker Commission, which called for “a new settlement”.
While admitting that partisan politics has failed to produce and introduce new methods for combatting the system's “existential challenge”, Lamb maintains that the change needs to be initiated from within government.
He said: the government has to “make a big offer to other politicians and parties to agree to participate in the process, it has to be time limited, and critically it has to engage with the public and staff of the system”.