Alan Johnson: A time to celebrate the NHS... and then make it even better

LIKE most people in this country, I am a child of the National Health Service. It was there for my mother and my family when I was born, and will be there for my children and future generations long after I have passed on.

The principles on which it was founded, of care free at the point of need available to all, makes the NHS the envy of many countries and the jewel in the crown of our public services. It is therefore a cause for celebration that this unique British institution will commemorate its diamond jubilee on Saturday.

The 60th anniversary of the NHS is an ideal time for us to reflect on how healthcare in this country has evolved within our lifetimes. People live on average at least 10 years longer than they did in 1948. Hardly anybody now dies from tuberculosis – once our biggest killer – and deaths from cancer and heart disease have fallen dramatically. Britain is one of the safest places in the world to give birth.

Many factors have contributed to these successes, but the key was the creation of a comprehensive health service that brought together prevention, diagnosis and treatment in an umbrella organisation for the first time. Since 1948, a powerful mix of medical progress and the skill of NHS staff has continually improved the standards and quality of care for millions of people.

It is easy to forget that the standards we now take for granted were once novel. In 1948, a cataract operation meant a week of total immobility with the poor, long-suffering patient's head supported by sandbags. Now eye surgery is over within 20 minutes, and most patients are out of hospital the same day.

In 1958, hip replacements were so unusual, the surgeon who invented them asked patients to agree their return post-mortem. The NHS now carries out 1,000 of these replacements every week.

The first UK heart transplant patient in 1968 only survived 46 days, but the procedure is now routine enough for two dozen to be carried out in such a period.

The world waited until 1978 for Britain to produce the first test-tube baby, now 6,000 are born here annually. The breast-screening programme introduced in 1988 now saves the lives of 1,400 women a year. And the introduction of NHS Direct in 1998 launched a pioneering alternative to GP services that currently handles more than half a million calls a month.

During my visit to Sheffield Children's Hospital earlier this year, I opened the "theatre of the future", a hi-tech facility allowing consultants to collaborate using video links. The consultants explained how they can work from several sites using virtual technology as if they were in the theatre together, pooling skills, talent and resources to offer patients an even better and faster service.

In Yorkshire, 6.6bn is spent on health care across the region every year, equivalent to nearly 1,300 for every man, woman and child. NHS Yorkshire and Humber serves a diverse population of over five million people, including major cities like Leeds and Sheffield, as well as towns, villages and rural areas with scattered communities, such as those in the north of the region.

On a typical day in Yorkshire and the Humber, 144,000 patients will see their GP or community nurse or receive support from mental health services. Some 5,000 people will attend Accident and Emergency and of those, 800 will be admitted to hospital. There are 9,000 medical staff, including consultants, GPs and dentists – and 38,000 qualified nurses, health visitors and midwives.

The NHS has always been in a state of progress and transition and its anniversary year will be no exception. In May, I attended an event in Hull organised by Age Concern, to hear ideas from older people on the future of adult social care. As people live longer, we want to do all we can to ensure those extra years are quality years. This means a greater emphasis on prevention, and more integration between health and social care.

In April, I had the honour of attending the Yorkshire and Humber Health and Social Care Awards, in Sheffield, where staff from across the region in 12 categories were recognised and rewarded for their commitment to improving the lives of local people.

The best moments in this job are when I manage to escape from Westminster and meet the people on the ground delivering our health services. I never fail to be impressed by the dedication, hard work and compassion I see from staff at every level.

The rising expectations of the British public will continue to drive the process of reform. This does not mean imposing more reorganisation – I have already ruled out any further structural changes to the network. It does mean introducing greater responsiveness – listening to

staff and trusting their expertise, hearing the views of patients

and acting on their criticisms and concerns.

Nine out of10 people rate the care they receive from the NHS as good, very good or excellent, yet public debate is rightly dominated by discussion of what could or should be better.

So what are we doing? David Nicholson, the NHS chief executive, recently set out the priorities for the next 12 months including immediate steps to improve access – not only by reducing waiting to a maximum of 18 weeks, but also by increasing opening hours for GP surgeries – and greater efforts to tackle the incidence of hospital infections as well as putting extra resources into stroke and cancer care. Meanwhile, Lord Ara Darzi, will continue his unprecedented programme of engagement with fellow clinicians, staff and patients about new models of care.

The outcome of the "Our NHS Our Future" review – which is due to be published today – will include proposals for a new NHS constitution for the next 60 years.

However, NHS 60 also gives us a further opportunity to tap into that public debate about expectations. We are all used to the NHS being there for us in an emergency, but we also know that prevention is better than cure. Some of the biggest medical challenges we face today are the results of our modern lifestyle – lack of exercise, poor diet, excessive alcohol consumption and smoking. Personal responsibility is crucial, as is the need for employers to promote the health of their staff. The challenge for the NHS is to accept its share of that wider social responsibility – not just to diagnose and treat illness more quickly and more safely, but to prevent people becoming ill in the first place.

Only then can we transform the NHS from a sickness service into a genuine health service.

Alan Johnson is the Health Secretary and MP for Hull West and Hessle.