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It’s never been more vital to focus on improving health

Leafing through the January newspapers, apart from significant international strife, it’s the limp state of the UK economy that’s most prominent in the news.  

There are lots of reasons for this of course but a few stats jump out at me: the 20% of the working-age population who are economically inactive, and the record high number (2.7 million) who put this down to chronic illness. Next to this group are 3.9 million people who are in work and reporting that illness is job-limiting.  

The reasons for all this are of course complex. So I am very glad that we have launched an independent Commission for Healthier Working Lives to look at these very questions over the next 18 months, understand what is going on and suggest solutions. The Commission chair, Sacha Romanovitch (CEO of Fair4AllFinance), joins me and Ollie Coppard (Mayor of South Yorkshire) to explore the main issues in our latest podcast.  

All this is part of our bigger portfolio on improving health and reducing inequalities. In this newsletter Dr Claire Fuller, new NHS England medical director of primary care, reflects on the increasing burden of morbidity predicted ahead to 2030, mostly due to the ageing of the population, from our analysis last year.

We need to make progress on harnessing gains from technology

Diane Coyle’s REAL Challenge lecture on the NHS last November contained a striking, if not unsurprising, slide. It showed a 30% difference in productivity among firms in the wider economy that had invested in technology compared with those that hadn’t.  

Looking back over the past 30 years of reforms, it’s difficult to see any suite that produced that level of gain in the NHS. The effective use of technology must be one of the biggest hopes for the future especially given recent advances and those on the horizon.  

With that in mind, we are turning our minds here at the Foundation to examining the UK approach to artificial intelligence and digital technology in health care, and identifying what needs to be done next to best make progress.  

We will be publishing our thoughts on this soon, so watch this space. This follows on from our recent podcasts on the huge promise of technology and on keeping up with AI in health care, and from meetings we’ve held with key stakeholders, including working alongside the Academy of Medical Sciences. It also draws on our survey work with the public to understand attitudes to technology.  

We’ll be pushing for wider action from government

2024 is very likely to be the year of the general election and so many colleagues will be in overdrive. This month we’re launching the five main priorities for action we’d like to see taken by the next government:  

  1. Investing in health as an asset and a priority for cross-government action
  2. Improving people’s health and tackling inequalities  
  3. Strengthening capacity and resilience in the NHS
  4. Transforming care through innovation, technology and reform  
  5. Investment and reform to fix the broken social care system.  

You’ll hear us talk about these themes a lot over the coming year. You can also explore them in more detail in our new infographic.  

Our suggestions for NHS reform will be informed by the very latest polling and extensive focus group work with the public to be published in the spring. This is part of a longer series of polling we’ve commissioned over the past few years, which now gives us a rich picture of what the public think about health and care, and why.

Providing responsive and helpful analysis

Apart from working on big themes of health, innovation and improvement and policy here at the Foundation and with others, one of the joys of the job is the ability for colleagues to swiftly carry out reactive analytical work to answer some of the key questions of the day.  

A recent example of this was to investigate the impact of strike action on NHS waiting lists – work that was very ably carried out by our analytical team. The analysis showed the growing backlog of elective care cannot be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic alone. Its roots lie in a decade of underinvestment in the NHS and other public services, an avoidable failure to address chronic staff shortages, lack of capital investment and the longstanding neglect of adult social care. On strikes – a relatively small impact on the size of the waiting list was shown. Subsequent analysis is suggesting that the very recent dip in waiting lists may be due to fewer referrals from general practice in October and November – which we will be monitoring.

Supporting innovative research and improvement

Another joy of the job is seeing the impact of work funded by our research and improvement programmes as it comes to fruition. This month's newsletter features an interview with Luke Munford from the University of Manchester, talking about his work to redefine how we can drill down into the health of places. Initially funded by our Social and Economic Value of Health programme, we are now further investing in this innovative approach to investigating the links between your health and where you live. Luke talks to Hardeep Aiden from our research team about the practical implications this work could have for policymakers and local decision makers interested in improving health.

Opportunities to get involved

So finally, here’s our annual round up of Health Foundation funding and opportunities to get involved in our work. I really hope you’ll join us in improving health, care and policymaking in 2024.  

Jennifer Dixon (@JenniferTHF) is Chief Executive of the Health Foundation.

This content originally featured in our email newsletter, which explores perspectives and expert opinion on a different health or health care topic each month.

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