The Government’s Integration Agenda Will Make or Break Social Care and with it the NHS

The Government’s implementation of integrated care systems is a significant opportunity to secure the future of the social care sector across England. If properly prioritised and integrated, social care can play an indispensable role in tackling the care backlog and ensuring that patient independence and wellbeing are maintained for as long as possible.

The Need to Integrate the NHS and Social Care

If the Government fails to put social care at the heart of the integration agenda, it harms the sector which holds the keys to the long-term success of the NHS itself. The NHS will continue to struggle with extended waiting times if social care is not afforded the resource, planning and parity of esteem alongside the NHS to deal with the pressures that come with an ageing population.

A key aspect of the NHS Long Term plan is supporting people to age well. It commits the Government to boosting funding for primary and community care to accelerate hospital discharge and community rapid response. It commits to upgrading NHS staff support for people living in care homes and to helping people to live independently at home for longer. If the Government is to make good on these commitments made in the NHS Long Term Plan, social care has to be at the centre of its thinking.

Before Christmas, CEO of NHS providers Chris Hopson remarked that 10,000 beds a week in the NHS were currently occupied by medically fit patients who had experienced a delay to their discharge from hospital care. A key cause: the lack of social care capacity available to continue their care. With care staff shortages at 112,000 and 81% of care providers highlighting that it is more challenging now to recruit staff than it was six months ago, the Government would do well to recognise the correlation between hospital discharge delays and the lack of staff available in social care to continue to look after them.

The Challenge of Integrating the NHS and Social Care

Despite the heroic efforts of care staff over the past two years, the social care sector still struggles with the mantel of playing second fiddle when compared to the NHS. Despite the semi-regular reorganisations of the NHS over the past two decades; the local hospitals and services of the NHS have been largely consistent throughout. To put it simply, people know what you’re talking about when you talk about the NHS.

Social care, by contrast, is messy. It’s a patchwork of public, private and third sector organisations. Its workforce is regularly bolstered by short term agency work and is supported by a national army of unpaid care. Its services range from a shopping delivery to 24-hour care and its work takes place in homes, day centres, supported living facilities and care homes across the UK.

When comparing the NHS and social care, it is little wonder then that the prospect of integrating the myriad of social care with the relative monolith of the NHS fills many that work in the sector with an acute sense of trepidation. There was little word on integration in the Government’s recent social care white paper and many fear that the sector will be unable to compete with the NHS, should their funding be widely pooled at the discretion of ICSs and local government.

The Solution to Integrating the NHS and Social Care

Out of the pandemic, the Government now has a choice: social care can be an invaluable ally in tackling the care backlog which has recently topped 6 million people, or it can be a key cause in adding to it. If the Government is to succeed in integrating social care into the wider ICS network, it must provide for the long-term future of the social care workforce. This workforce, when properly funded, trained and rewarded has the capacity to treat patients in their homes or in supported living facilities. It has the capacity to provide vital additional discharge capacity for the NHS and it has the ability to drive forward the ageing well agenda of the NHS Long Term Plan. For the long term health of the NHS amidst an ageing population, the Government would do well to put social care at the heart of its integration agenda.

Matthew Spencer is an Account Manager at Healthcomms Consulting

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