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Patients can now send WhatsApp-style messages to their doctors, writes NHS CEO Simon Stevens

This weekend there will be mixed emotions as the country comes together to mark the NHS’s anniversary. 

Amid a pandemic that has been the greatest challenge in the health service’s 72-year history – sorrow for lives lost.

But also gratitude – for the skill and dedication of health and care staff, who have responded so amazingly in our hour of need.

Of course no health service, not even the NHS, could have coped alone if coronavirus had been allowed to let rip. 

Simon Stevens (pictured), the Chief Executive of the NHS says the coronavirus pandemic has been the greatest challenge in the health service’s 72-year history

Simon Stevens (pictured), the Chief Executive of the NHS says the coronavirus pandemic has been the greatest challenge in the health service’s 72-year history

Simon Stevens (pictured), the Chief Executive of the NHS says the coronavirus pandemic has been the greatest challenge in the health service’s 72-year history

Which is why tomorrow we want to say thank you to everyone who played their part in helping us help you. 

To the other key workers and volunteers who kept the country running. 

To the Daily Mail and Mail Force for their brilliant campaign that has supplied millions of items of PPE.

And above all to the families and neighbours who acted so responsibly, limiting social interaction and pushing the virus into retreat.

However the inescapable fact is that coronavirus looks as if it will be with us – across the world – for some time. 

So the price of freedom from lockdown will have to be constant vigilance. 

As and when a vaccine becomes available, the NHS will undertake what will probably be our largest immunisation campaign ever – matching what is likely to be our biggest ever flu vaccination programme this winter.

Until then, we are all going to have to exercise judgement and restraint.

An early test will be the reopening of pubs this weekend. Our A&E doctors, nurses and paramedics are desperate not to see so-called ‘pubageddon’ – hospitals flooded with the drunk and disorderly.

Because looking out over the months to come, the NHS will still be caring for thousands of often very ill patients with Covid-19, while restarting non-urgent services that had to be paused at the peak of the pandemic, and while also needing surge capacity to deal with local flare-ups or even a second wave.

So the task ahead is a tough one. But necessity is the mother of invention. 

Simon Stevens has thanked  the Daily Mail and Mail Force for their brilliant campaign that has supplied millions of items of PPE

Simon Stevens has thanked  the Daily Mail and Mail Force for their brilliant campaign that has supplied millions of items of PPE

Simon Stevens has thanked  the Daily Mail and Mail Force for their brilliant campaign that has supplied millions of items of PPE 

Confronted by a disease that thrives in crowded places we have seen that not all consultations and advice from a nurse or doctor need to be face to face.

Patients leading busy lives are now able to turn to WhatsApp-style messaging services to communicate with their GP or practice staff, asking for advice or requesting repeat prescriptions without an appointment unless they need it.

Since the start of this year, the NHS has gone from offering 150,000 ‘virtual’ outpatient appointments to nearly 1.5million a month.

All this cannot and should not replace the option of face-to-face appointments, but using tech to link up patients and professionals is here to stay. 

The Royal College of Emergency Medicine is right to argue for new ways of offering care in place of the overcrowded A&Es of the past.

A&E doctors, nurses and paramedics are desperate not to see so-called ‘pubageddon’ – hospitals flooded with the drunk and disorderly. Pictured: BrewDog Tower Hill staff finish preparations for tomorrow's opening with plastic screens in place on tables

A&E doctors, nurses and paramedics are desperate not to see so-called ‘pubageddon’ – hospitals flooded with the drunk and disorderly. Pictured: BrewDog Tower Hill staff finish preparations for tomorrow's opening with plastic screens in place on tables

A&E doctors, nurses and paramedics are desperate not to see so-called ‘pubageddon’ – hospitals flooded with the drunk and disorderly. Pictured: BrewDog Tower Hill staff finish preparations for tomorrow’s opening with plastic screens in place on tables 

The £1.5billion of capital investment announced by the Prime Minister this week will help deal with the space constraints created by Covid infection controls, but this remains a big new pressure on care delivery as we prepare for winter.

And the NHS 111 phone and online service is also playing its part.

There are other NHS innovations afoot, prompted by what has worked well during the pandemic.

After creating the Nightingale hospitals as an insurance policy against the coronavirus surge, now that they are thankfully not needed for Covid patients, two will be partly used as diagnostic centres to tackle the backlog that has built up. 

And the NHS is also looking to create new Nightingale-style stand-alone sites carrying out CT and MRI scans.

We are also bringing online specialist Seacole centres and home rehabilitation as part of an expansion in services for those who have survived the virus but still suffer its debilitating effects. 

After creating the Nightingale hospitals as an insurance policy against the coronavirus surge, now that they are thankfully not needed for Covid patients, two will be partly used as diagnostic centres to tackle the backlog that has built up

After creating the Nightingale hospitals as an insurance policy against the coronavirus surge, now that they are thankfully not needed for Covid patients, two will be partly used as diagnostic centres to tackle the backlog that has built up

After creating the Nightingale hospitals as an insurance policy against the coronavirus surge, now that they are thankfully not needed for Covid patients, two will be partly used as diagnostic centres to tackle the backlog that has built up

It’s also increasingly clear that underlying health conditions place you at much higher risk.

The stark fact is that obesity doubles your chance of critical illness and death from Covid, even after taking account of age, sex, ethnicity and deprivation. This should be a wake-up call for preventive action.

From healthy eating advice and the ‘Couch to 5k’ beginners running app, through to the Diabetes Prevention Programme, there is a huge range of NHS-backed support and advice to make that easier.

Cancer remains one of the NHS’s top priorities. A new AI tool is being rolled out to help doctors improve diagnosis, getting patients the right tests and treatment faster.

Given that treatment can make patients more vulnerable to coronavirus it is important that we find new ways of delivering cancer care as safely as possible, from Covid-secure hubs to ‘chemo at home’.

As the NHS turns 72, we are reminded that the reason it continues to succeed is precisely because it is constantly changing and improving.

So, yes, this weekend is a profound moment to mourn loved ones – and to thank those who have served. But it’s also a time to look forward – to the NHS we must build for the future. 

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