MEDICAL CHIEF: OUR OLD-AGE HEALTH CRISIS
New Chief Medical Officer warns of surge in elderly population ++ Reveals rural areas struggling to cope ++ Insists only a health revolution can avert emergency
THE NHS risks being overwhelmed by an old-age health crisis, the new Chief Medical Officer warns today.
Chris Whitty says drastic action is needed to cope with a surge in the number of patients aged over 65.
He points out that countryside districts and coastal towns with older populations are
often poorly served by GPs, hospital clinics, ambulances and out-of-hours providers.
In his first interview since becoming England’s Chief Medical Officer in October, Professor Whitty proposes a series of radical solutions to our ageing crisis. Speaking to the Mail he explains how:
• Doctors’ training will be reformed so they are able to better care for patients with several chronic conditions;
• Medical schools will be located in rural and coastal areas to ensure more doctors serve these ageing communities;
• Cervical cancer and many liver cancers will be eradicated in 60 years and other types will be much easier to treat;
• Ministers must avoid letting big tobacco firms lure children on to e-cigarettes;
• Trendy cannabis products on sale on the high street may be unsafe.
Professor Whitty, 53, is the Government’s top health adviser and his brief stretches from planning the response to coronavirus to drawing up key medical policies. But one
‘This is predictable and it’s solvable’
of his most pressing concerns is how to meet the needs of the growing numbers of older patients with multiple illnesses.
Eighteen per cent of the population is over 65 but by 2038 this figure is expected to reach 24 per cent, nearly one in four.
It is predicted to be 40 per cent in North Norfolk by then and 37 per cent in the Lake District.
Other ageing hotspots are expected to be Rother in East Sussex (41 per cent) and East Lindsey in Lincolnshire (37 per cent).
Professor Whitty says: ‘The ageing of the population of rural areas will occur much faster and there will be a much higher concentration of people who are older who therefore have more health needs in the rural areas.
‘We have to think about this both for now and also accordingly for the future, this is a future issue.
‘If we did nothing on this we will get to a situation where the burden of disease for the country – the number of people who are actually suffering from lots of long-term medical conditions – will go up and service delivery will stay where it is. The gap between what people need and what people get will widen.
‘We have under-appreciated how much in the future this is going to be an issue. This is predictable and it’s solvable, provided we take a long run at it.’
Professor Whitty, who took over the role from Dame Sally Davies in October, stresses that the increase in over-65s will result in many more patients suffering from multiple long-term conditions.
These could include dementia, cancer, diabetes, cataracts, heart disease and osteoporosis – bone thinning – and some of these diseases will aggravate one another. Patients can end up having five or six different hospital outpatient clinics for each illness which Professor Whitty says is ‘neither good medicine, nor is it convenient for patients’. To end this, he wants to reform doctors’ training so they are more generalist than specialist. He has been discussing the proposals with the Royal
College of Physicians, the Royal College of Surgeons, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges as well as NHS England.
He says: ‘We’re talking particularly about hospital doctors, we need to make sure they retain their generalist skills.’
Professor Whitty also wants medical schools to be set up in some of the rural and coastal locations where populations are ageing fastest.
He hopes that this will eventually result in more doctors – hospital consultants and GPs – practising in the areas of greatest need.
‘One of the things we need to look at is how we can incentivise GPs and other doctors to want to work in these areas both for current and also future need,’ he adds.
‘There’s just a service delivery challenge that we need to think about and work out what methods we can use to address that. Some areas are more remote than others – providing services in the Lake District will be more problematic just because of the geography.
‘It’s sufficiently predictable and sufficiently far in the future that if we start doing things now, we can start to address it. If we wait until the problem has hit us, which it undoubtedly will, it will be a lot harder to sort out.’