We need leadership and action on health – whoever’s in charge

Michael Moore from MacMillan Cancer Support writes for us about the importance of healthcare in the next Assembly

A new Assembly mandate brings uncertainty around some key issues in Northern Ireland. But one thing is clear – the quality of care for people living with cancer and other long term conditions must not be determined by rolling the political dice.

Party manifestos appeared throughout April with a plethora of commitments on the future of health and social care, including plenty about cancer specifically. Many also fit within the growing consensus that big and bold changes are needed to address the needs of those whose lives are affected by chronic illness.

Several main parties now emerge without the individuals who have been most outspoken in the health debates of recent years – either through retirement or lost seats. Think Fearghal McKinney, Michael McGimpsey, Maeve McLaughlin and Kieran McCarthy.

With new spokespeople, new committee members and possibly a new Health Minister, it is vital that the appetite for ongoing transformation isn’t lost in transition. Too much work has gone towards agreeing a vision and creating the platform for Professor Bengoa’s expert panel to determine how the needs of our population can be met.

Among these are long term conditions, which the World Health Organisation rightly calls “the health care challenge of this century”.

Many people develop illnesses that can’t be cured and must instead be managed through drugs and other treatments. The last census in 2011 showed almost 1 in 3 people in Northern Ireland living with at least one long-term condition. Age, lifestyle, genetics and environment are among the main contributing factors in the rates of illness.

Though it is often still thought of as a ‘killer’ disease above all else, cancer is increasingly becoming one such condition. People are benefitting more from improved detection and innovative treatments that allow them to manage their cancer for years after diagnosis. But 70% of people with cancer in the UK are now also living with at least one other long term condition.

We can’t continue to treat single diseases and their individual symptoms separately – we need to care for the whole person.

We must remember that the way in which an individual’s condition is managed will help determine their quality of life. Many people face the same barriers, stemming from a system geared too much towards admitting people to hospital when they experience acute symptoms of their illness.

Key policies such as Transforming Your Care and The Right Time, The Right Place have pointed the way forward: prevention, early identification and self management. Now it is time to look at the bigger picture and work together to make the changes that will ensure our health service is sustainable and capable of meeting complex needs.

In the recent election cycles, there has been much talk of ‘taking the politics out of health.’ In Northern Ireland, all parties must have the courage to make and support the big decisions to come. The expertise of health professionals and the experiences of patients must remain the drivers of change.

Strong, consistent leadership is needed in order to make the best use of resources. Ongoing social and technological change will also make continual innovation necessary. But better outcomes are possible now and the conditions for achieving these must be created.

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