The government has launched a new integration white paper that aims to bring the NHS and local government closer together to improve care for all and value for money.
It sets out some of the ways health and care systems will draw on the resources and skills across the NHS and local government to better meet the needs of communities and reduce waiting lists.
This includes better transparency and choice with local authorities and the NHS sharing data and being more transparent about their performance so the local population will be able to see how their areas’ health and care services are performing and make decisions about their own care.
It also aims to link GPs with wider forms of community support, such as social prescribing, which could allow care to be more personalised which would help reduce the need for people to have more expensive, invasive medical treatment.
Other plans include earlier intervention, clear communication, and improved access to social care services through NHS data sharing. Currently local authorities cannot access all NHS data to make decisions about access to social care services. An integrated system would allow the NHS to notify a local authority straight away if a person requires social care support.
It also calls for better NHS support to care homes, with integration between hospitals and social care meaning more specialist support so care home residents could be treated before they get unwell and avoid having to go to hospital.
Stop people falling through the gaps in health and social care
Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said: "Better integration is vital to stop people falling into the gaps between health and social care. Ensuring our health and care systems work in unison will mean we can support hardworking staff, provide better care to patients and deliver value for the taxpayer.
"The plans set out in the white paper will ensure care is more personalised and accessible and remove the burdens on patients. Better information sharing will mean people will no longer have to remember key facts such as dates of diagnosis or medicines prescribed, taking pressure off patients to coordinate their own care."
The Health Foundation said that the overall emphasis on promoting closer integration of health and care services is welcome – and fits with what the NHS and local authorities are already trying to do in different parts of the country.
But it added that the white paper is vague on what the changes may mean in practice and risks overclaiming what integration can achieve. There is also a risk of confusion, given the NHS in England is already being reorganised through the Health and Care Bill currently being debated in Parliament. The relationship between these different changes is not always clear.
Hugh Alderwick, Head of Policy at the Health Foundation, said: "The proposal for single leaders for health and social care in local ‘places’ sounds simple but may cause disruption and added layers of management – and the fundamental differences between how the NHS and social care systems work will remain intact. Making collaboration work in practice depends as much on culture, management, resources, and other factors as it does on changes to structures and lines of accountability.
"Better integration between services is no replacement for properly funding them. The social care system in England is on its knees and central government funding over the coming years is barely enough to meet growing demand for care – let alone expand and improve the system.
"More integration is also little good if there aren’t enough staff to deliver services. Staffing shortages in health and social care are chronic, yet government has no long-term plan to address them."