An honest discussion about our health service

Two recent letters I received this week have confirmed that it’s time we had an honest discussion about our health service here in north Wales.

One was from the chief executive of Betsi Cadwaladr Health Board, Gary Doherty, which apologised for the delays facing patients waiting for orthopaedic treatment. He said “demand for orthopaedic surgery now exceeds our capacity in north Wales by around 1800 cases per year, as a result of rising life expectancy and an increase in the range of conditions that can be treated surgically.”

This is not unique and is not new – I first raised the problem regarding unacceptable orthopaedic waiting lists 18 months ago and nothing has changed. People are living with terrible pain and facing more serious surgery as a result of these lengthy waits for even the most routine of procedures.

Our NHS is underfunded and areas such as north Wales, which have a far larger elderly population than many other parts of the UK, are less able to cope with that growing demand. This is why a needs-based formula for funding our public services is essential rather than a flat-rate formula per head of population.

The other letter I received was from the North Wales Local Medical Committee, which warned that the area faces an “escalating crisis” in terms of GP surgeries.

Again, Plaid Cymru has raised concerns about the loss of GP practices over a number of years and called for the training and recruitment of 1,000 new doctors across Wales to meet that demand. We have campaigned for a Medical School in north Wales to specifically address the problem of training and retention in this region, not least because in areas such as Wrexham a large number of GPs were retiring or giving up their practices.

The letter confirms that this trend is accelerating with a lack of skilled professionals making matters worse: “New models of care are being trialled, but a lack of Nurse Practitioners and other allied health professionals as well as GPs is threatening the success of these schemes. Wrexham now has six large practices that have lost their GPs. The LHB are directly managing these practices, along with many others across North Wales. The number of practices moving to ‘managed status’ seems to have picked up significant speed in the last few months.

LHB figures show that Managed Practices cost approximately a third more to run, and the growing number of these practices will have a significant impact on the health economy of the region.”

It’s time both the health board and Welsh Government, which runs the NHS in Wales, faced up to this looming crisis before it’s too late.

I’ve warned for many years of a problem with workforce planning that’s left us short of doctors, nurses and other specialist staff to enable the NHS to function properly across the region. The concerns have been ignored by successive health ministers in Cardiff. The Labour Government’s u-turn on a Medical School for the North again brings into question its commitment to anything north of Merthyr and it appears that the NHS is being allowed to wither on the vine by a government that has had direct control of the local health board for two years and counting.

It’s time we had a debate about a better-funded NHS that can meet the ever-growing demands of an ageing population but also the way in which the local health board and the Labour Government is failing to spend existing money well. Let’s take a local example – is spending £2,000,000 on adapting and extending a drug and alcohol unit at The Elms in Wrexham the best use of NHS funding?

At a time when we need to plan for a health service over the coming decades that can cope with new advances in treatments, these two letters exposing the failure of government and health board chiefs to recognise where the pressure points are do not make for encouraging reading.