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Access to healthcare: the evolving UK ecosystem

A new report published by the King’s Fund and Nuffield Trust think tanks has revealed that public satisfaction with the NHS has fallen to its lowest level on record. Just 24% of the British public are satisfied with the way the NHS is working, while 52% are dissatisfied, an all-time high.

The most common reason given by respondents for their frustrations with the NHS’ performance was long waiting times for GP and hospital appointments. The findings speak to long-running concerns, exacerbated by Covid, about patients’ ability to access the healthcare services they need. A survey conducted by Savanta for the pressure group Healthwatch in November last year found that access to healthcare is the most significant health-related concern for people in the UK, with barriers and delays impacting almost every part of the NHS.

So, with the provision of healthcare devolving further into a postcode lottery, what are the key trends influencing the sector?

Patient Choice

The principle of patient choice is embedded within the NHS Constitution and gives patients the legal right to choose how and where they receive health and care services in the NHS in England.

Patients are becoming increasingly choice-conscious about their healthcare, driven in large part by the huge strains on NHS services and waiting lists across the country. In October the government announced that up to 400,000 eligible patients who had been waiting longer than 40 weeks for appointments would be offered the option to travel to other hospitals in the country for earlier treatment.

With NHS waiting lists showing few signs of disappearing in the near future, it’s clear that patient demand for greater choice and flexibility in how they access healthcare will continue to grow.

Digital Health

Given these demands, the use of digital technology to improve both the quality and availability of healthcare has become a growing imperative and potential beacon of hope for patients struggling to access services.

From virtual GPs to the use of AI, digital health solutions can offer numerous advantages, from cheaper delivery costs to greatly improved access, and could be a fundamental tool as a cost-effective means of tackling NHS waiting lists.

The NHS itself is pushing ahead with its major programme of digitisation aimed at bringing all NHS Trusts up to a core level of digital capability by March 2026. But many of the most innovative digital health solutions are being driven by the private sector which is playing a increasing role in the UK’s health ecosystem for a growing number of patients.

For businesses operating in this space, an effective strategic communications campaign will be key to educating, influencing & building trust from key stakeholders within and outside of the health system. There are understandable concerns that remain around data protection so providers will need to proactively address these and raise awareness of the practical steps they are taking to maintain patient privacy.

Private provision

While the NHS continues to struggle under the weight of record waiting lists, staff shortages and other structural issues, the figures point to a growing appetite among the British public for accessing private healthcare.

A recent report from independent consultancy Broadstone has predicted there will be more than 900,000 admissions to private health services in 2024. The growing demand for private healthcare, driven by the corporate sector, speaks to the ongoing shift in the way people in the UK access healthcare services amid the rolling crisis within the NHS since Covid.

Yet there remains an underlying tension in the UK over the extent of the role which private healthcare providers should be playing in the NHS. Culturally there are strong concerns among the public about ‘privatisation’ of NHS services – a Survation poll in 2023 found that two thirds of people were concerned about NHS outsourcing to private companies.

However, it’s also clear that with the fundamental structural issues at play in the public sector, more wide-ranging reform is required. And patients already appear to be voting with their feet. Data from the Private Healthcare Information Network shows a 7% increase year-on-year in the number of people using private hospitals while the number of people self-funding care is 32% higher than pre-Covid.

General election

The upcoming general election could spark a major shift across these trends should Labour win as predicted. The Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting has signalled a far softer attitude to private sector involvement and investment in healthcare provision than his predecessors in his party as part of his broader reforming agenda. Streeting has pledged to “hold the door wide open” to private businesses supporting the NHS and drive reforms using new technologies. While precise details are yet to emerge, there are likely to be plenty of opportunities for businesses that can support that reforming vision and deliver services that improve healthcare access and outcomes.

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