Winter pressure on the health and care system – what’s the answer?

“’T is the season to be jolly,” or so the song goes. But it’s hard to stay in good spirits if you’ve been sitting for hours in A&E waiting to be seen, or if you can’t get a doctor’s appointment.

We know that, at this time of year more than ever, our health and care services can struggle with demand. They face so-called “winter pressures” – a combination of high numbers of people getting colds and ‘flu, the vulnerable and the elderly suffering due to colder weather conditions, and accidents that happen as a result of too much festive revelling. And it’s not just health services – social care services can feel similarly stretched. Christmas can be a stressful time and mental health services in particular can see an increase of people wanting crisis support, and carers can also feel the strain.

You may have seen the posters in your local hospital, GP surgery or bus-stop urging you to “Stay Well This Winter”. The message from the NHS is this: please stay away from A&E if it’s not urgent – see a doctor or pharmacist instead.

The story probably sounds familiar. The question is, how can we make the health and care system more robust with these inevitable winter pressures?

Part of the answer has to come from the health service itself, such as providing more staff, beds and training.  We know that pressure on resources is a national problem – but the NHS can also make a difference locally. Broomfield Hospital is opening a “winter ward”, and there will also be increased support for people with long-term conditions like the lung condition, COPD.

Voluntary and community organisations are playing their part too. For instance, AgeUK Essex is helping local older residents survive this winter by providing advice and support. This includes information on how to heat their homes, stock up on food and medicine, and prevent falls in icy conditions. Community Agents Essex can also help people to stay safe and independent in their own homes. These local organisations, and others like them, can help prevent situations occurring that may otherwise escalate and end up in A&E.

But that alone will not solve the problem. The current pressure on A&E departments should also be an opportunity for more joined-up care between hospitals, GPs, pharmacies, community services and social services. As Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, Medical Director of NHS England, has said, “Better integration and communication between these services could reduce unnecessary attendances at A&E and enable people in hospital to return home sooner.”

Lastly, we all also need to take responsibility for accessing the right service at the right time – in other words, making the right choice about whether we should be going to A&E, or if ringing NHS 111, seeing a GP, going to the walk-in centre, or calling crisis support would be more appropriate. Here at Healthwatch Essex, we run an information phone line, which can point you to a service that can help you – not just in winter, but throughout the year. Our number is 0300 500 1895.

What’s more, if you are one of the many people who may have to use health and care services this winter, we’d like to know what it was like. At Healthwatch Essex, we work with the NHS and social care by using your voice to help improve services – so this time next year, your experience, and that of your friends and relatives, will hopefully be better.

And let’s not forget, it’s also the season of goodwill, so if you’ve had good experience this winter and would like to compliment the NHS or social care services, please tell us about that too. Christmas is now just a week away, and we hope you have a safe and healthy festive season.