Opinion: 'We need to take more responsibility for our own health'

An older woman drinking water on a yoga mat

Staying active and eating well could help relieve the burden on our NHS says Rachel Moore - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Backlogs for specialist hospital appointments, investigations and treatment are terrifyingly long and will only go one way for the foreseeable, I fear – up.

The NHS entered the pandemic with rising fast-unmanageable waiting lists. Most patients are supposed to be seen within 18 weeks of a referral, but six-month waiting lists to see some specialists have doubled compared to last year and are getting longer.

Ripples from the impact of long-term illness hit patients’ families, their workforce and, too often, mental health services.

The next few years will mean life or death situations for thousands of people waiting now for treatment, diagnostic tests or potentially life-saving surgery, who can do nothing about it. 

The first year of Covid-19 brought 5,800 'excess' deaths from heart and circulatory conditions after many NHS services were suspended as hospitals focused on the pandemic. The British Heart Foundation warns a higher death toll as waiting lists lengthen.

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Pulling cardiology care waiting times back to pre-pandemic levels could reportedly take between three and five years, potentially until November 2026.

In the meantime, people struggle with the day-to-day challenges of managing health conditions, risking even greater care needs in the future.

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In England, nearly 1.2 million people are waiting more than six months for essential services such as brain surgery and eye treatment because of the Covid backlog - almost five times that recorded in the same period in 2019.

And they’re the lucky ones who have managed to get to the referral stage by seeing a GP. In some areas of the country, fewer than six in 10 GP appointments are being held face-to-face.

It’s so easy to blame a system creaking under the weight – again literally given the rocketing national obesity crisis – of demand and point to the obvious need for injections of money and staff.

There will never be enough money or enough staff to cope with an escalating national health crisis.

The system is failing the population, but its users are failing the system too. All of us who expect to ask and have what we need delivered quickly, efficiently, and effectively, all for free, have a responsibility to do something to address the chronic waiting lists too.

If we’ve learned one thing from the last 18 months of locking ourselves away, masking up, washing and sanitising and keeping our distance, it's that we have some ownership of our personal health, wellbeing and safety. It’s not down to someone else to do it for us.

The NHS is a rescue service for health emergencies, chronic illness and provides care services for childbirth, mental health and when our bodies give up. It’s there to pick us up and put us back together again when we’re in dire need.

Today, more than ever, we must think more about what we can do individually to prevent needing rescue and help.

Don’t we owe it to the NHS staff we clapped for to do our bit to meet them halfway and ease their burden?

By taking ourselves in hand to make life changes to stave off health conditions that need treatment, we would be freeing up resources for those really in need through no fault of their own.

Though most patients are supposed to be seen within 18 weeks, six-month waiting lists have doubled for ear, nose and throat services and gastroenterology services when compared to the same period in 2020.

I’ve been waiting months for a referral to the same team that carried out my cancer surgery 10 years ago. Nothing chronic, life threatening or debilitating, more uncomfortable, inconvenient and life-effecting rather than changing, I’d much rather someone with more urgent needs had the help.

Self medicating with regular exercise to get fitter, returning to Slimming World and cutting back cheese and wine seems to be working.

We know that eating rubbish causes obesity and clogged arteries, larger bodies put more pressure on joints that crumble eventually, and a sedentary lifestyle destroys mobility, adding even more weight gain.

All the above can be reversed by a bit of effort.

Only yesterday, I heard how a man was told to strengthen his knee muscles ahead of a knee operation by walking in a swimming pool and, by following these instructions to a tee, not only did he strengthen his muscles but never needed the operation.

Our biggest lesson of Covid is that we can protect ourselves, and that even the best health care in the world can’t always save us.

We revered the work of NHS staff in lockdown. Let’s do them the biggest favour and try not to get to meet them.

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