Care worker with man in wheelchair

Patients will receive better, more joined-up care under new plans announced by the UK Government yesterday to improve the links between health and social care.

An integration white paper has set out a vision by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) for an integrated NHS and adult social care sector which will better serve patients and staff.

The white paper sets out some of the ways health and care systems will draw on the resources and skills across the NHS and local government to better meet the needs of communities, reduce waiting lists and help level up healthcare across the country.

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This includes better transparency and choice – if local authorities and the NHS share data and are more transparent about their performance, the local population will be able to see how their areas’ health and care services are performing and make decisions about their own care.

More personalised care, the white paper states, will link GPs with wider forms of community support, such as social prescribing, could allow care to be more personalised which would help reduce the need for people to have more expensive, invasive medical treatment.

Earlier intervention is another aim, with ‘integration’ to help people to access to the right services at the right time, including specialist services, which could mean earlier intervention that could prevent diseases from progressing and reduce the need for invasive and expensive interventions late in the day.

Integration will mean patients having a single digital care record, it states, so they can book appointments, order prescriptions, and communicate with their care providers on one platform while those involved in delivering health and care services can access the patient’s latest information.

This, states the white paper, will not only will this save time, but help ensure a patient does not have to repeat themselves so many times, and professionals will have the information they need to make care plans that work for the patient.

There will be improved access to social care services through NHS data sharing, according to the DHSC. Currently local authorities cannot access all NHS data to make decisions about access to social care services – an integrated system would allow the NHS to notify a local authority straight away if a person requires social care support.

Managing diseases in the community through better joining up between primary, community and hospital services will mean better treatment for patients, according to the white paper. It would also mean that more specialist support is given so care home residents could be treated before they get unwell and avoid having to go to hospital.

Better integration across health and care will reduce the burden on people to have to coordinate between different hospital specialists, GPs, social care and local authority services themselves, while aligning financial incentives and pooling budgets will mean that the NHS and local authorities can use their resources more flexibly to benefit patients.

Overall, the white paper states, this new vision will offer “better value for money”, reducing duplication and waste which will mean that NHS investment can be spent in ways that benefit patients and deliver savings for social care.

The integration white paper is the next step in delivering the government’s promise of a health and social care system fit for the future, it states, building on both the Health and Social Care Bill and the People at the Heart of Care white paper which set out a 10-year vision for social care funded through the Health and Care Levy, and follows the delivery plan for tackling the COVID-19 backlog of elective care.

Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said: “Better integration is vital to stop people falling into the gaps between health and social care. Ensuring our health and care systems work in unison will mean we can support hardworking staff, provide better care to patients and deliver value for the taxpayer.

“Our Integration white paper is part of our wider plans to reform and recover the health and social care system, ensuring everyone gets the treatment and care they need, when and where they need it.”

Paul Najsarek, Solace spokesperson for health and social care, added: “This white paper is a welcome step forward to improving health outcomes in communities across the country.

“The potential for local government to make a real, positive difference to the people and places we serve is immense, but it will only be by working together with health, voluntary and community sector partners, and playing to our respective strengths, that we will be able to deliver meaningful change by better treating and preventing illness, improving public health, and addressing inequalities.

“In particular, local authority chief executives have a crucial and unique role to play both in bringing together disparate funding streams in place and galvanising not just their councils but key local stakeholders to contribute to this incredibly important agenda.”

Hugh Alderwick, Head of Policy at the Health Foundation, expressed doubts about some aspects of the report, stating: “‘The overall emphasis on promoting closer integration of health and care services is welcome… But it is vague on what the changes may mean in practice and risks overclaiming what integration can achieve.

“There is also a risk of confusion, given the NHS in England is already being reorganised through the Health and Care Bill currently being debated in Parliament. The relationship between these different changes is not always clear.

“The proposal for single leaders for health and social care in local ‘places’ sounds simple but may cause disruption and added layers of management – and the fundamental differences between how the NHS and social care systems work will remain intact. Making collaboration work in practice depends as much on culture, management, resources, and other factors as it does on changes to structures and lines of accountability.

“Better integration between services is no replacement for properly funding them. The social care system in England is on its knees and central government funding over the coming years is barely enough to meet growing demand for care – let alone expand and improve the system.

“More integration is also little good if there aren’t enough staff to deliver services. Staffing shortages in health and social care are chronic, yet government has no long-term plan to address them.”

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