If you really care about the Health Service, be honest about its shortcomings

The worst secret in British politics is exposed again today, as the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AMRC) suggests waste in the NHS has hit unacceptable levels.

The report produced by the AMRC points to savings of nearly £2 billion that could be made by increasing medication reviews to prevent adverse drug reactions, creating a more efficient treatment culture and remembering that “one doctor’s waste is another patient’s delay.”

This is on top of the £5 billion of efficiencies that The Times claimed (£) could be found within the Health Service, and the £2.5 billion that the Department of Health suggests is the cost of unsafe care.

We’ve argued before that the NHS needs to become more efficient. The budget has nearly doubled since 2000, and yet productivity and the quality of care have remained – at best – stagnant. But whenever politicians are up against a wall and confronted with a failing hospital or a bed shortage, they reach for the easiest possible answer: more money. As in so many areas, the focus is on inputs (the amount of money, the number of nurses) rather than outputs (the quality of care). If we keep simply throwing more money at the Health Service to create more levels of bureaucratic middle management, our ageing population means that an unreformed and inefficient NHS will end up being just about the only thing our taxes will pay for. Money doesn’t grow on trees, and every penny of taxpayers’ money has an opportunity cost.

There are some extraordinary people working in the NHS, but it cannot be immune from criticism and reform as a result. We can’t be scared of criticising inefficiency – we can’t shy away from subjecting the Health Service to the same scrutiny as the rest of the public sector. The NHS as it currently operates is not sustainable in the long-term. To politicians, I offer a challenge: if you really care about the NHS, work out how to make it work better.