Labour’s health and care policy acknowledges the importance of the NHS to British society, while also recognising that there is a need for change in some areas in order for the NHS to continue to meet the increasing and diverse needs of a growing population.
However, Labour policy should recognise the contribution of Allied Health Professionals (AHPs) – such as occupational therapists, physiotherapists and speech and language therapists – and put them on an equal standing with ‘traditional’ healthcare professionals such as doctors and nurses.
The concept of a ‘whole person’ approach and the integration of physical, mental and social care services is a welcome first step to address the fragmentation that blights the NHS. The thing is, clinicians are already trained to take into account the holistic needs of their patients in order to deliver an effective, efficient and person-centred intervention . However, the fragmentation of services and frontline staff cuts brought in under the coalition government’s Health & Social Care Act (2012) can act as a barrier to high quality healthcare.
Cuts to frontline staff has had a detrimental impact on the NHS, especially to AHPs who work alongside doctors and nurses daily and yet receive little recognition in government policy. AHPs are clinical specialists allied to medicine. Recognition of their role within the modern healthcare system is essential; Labour needs to acknowledge that an efficient whole person approach requires integration of a range of healthcare professions working together across a multitude of services and recognise the specialist knowledge that AHPs bring to the team.
We need a pledge for more frontline clinicians to counteract the effects of overworked, over-stretched staff unable to meet the needs of patients as a consequence of staff cuts. Labour should be talking about tackling the recruitment freezes throughout the NHS whereby more experienced clinicians are retiring and not being replaced, with posts ‘frozen’ and money redirected into less experienced staff.
This limits the opportunities for professional development which ultimately impacts upon standards of care. Funding should be prioritised for those at the frontline: doctors, nurses, allied health professionals and health workers rather than in bureaucratic processes, management bonuses, private outsourcing, and six figure redundancy packages paid to 2,300 managers.
If Labour is truly committed to delivering a person-centred, integrated model of healthcare it needs to start by providing the funds to allow those clinicians to do their jobs.
There also needs to be an increased emphasis on all members of the primary care team ensuring rapid and relevant referrals are made to specialists to aid early identification, intervention and prevention of more complex medical conditions. This multi-disciplinary focus is crucial, considering the increased influence of GPs in commissioning services for their local communities under the current system of Clinical Commissioning Groups.
Attempts have been made to promote early identification and referral by AHPs, for example the Royal College of Speech & Language Therapists (RCSLT) has produced a useful resource to aid GPs in early identification of communication and swallowing difficulties in children and adults. The Seven Signs Booklet for children, which summarises seven indications of speech, language and communication difficulties in children is a useful resource that promotes prompt referrals to Speech & Language Therapy Services; an invaluable resource considering that seven per cent of five year olds start school with significant communication needs that require specialist intervention.
Further integration of the multi-disciplinary model in primary care is also paramount in tackling the increased risk of health problems associated with lower socioeconomic groups. For instance, 50 per cent of children in the most severely economically deprived areas start school with communication problems. Primary care services must be made more aware of allied health services available to such patients.
Labour party policy should value AHPs as highly as any other healthcare practitioner just as to ensure the holistic needs of all NHS patients are met. This will promote patients’ quality of life through prevention, effective multi-disciplinary working and exceptional standards of care.
Ria Bernard is a speech and language therapist and London Young Labour campaigns and membership officer.