JOE GILL: To fix health, we have to treat it as a growth industry

The ageing of the population in Ireland and other parts of the western world is being brought in to sharp relief by the health crises unfolding within both the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) and the Irish Health Service Executive (HSE).

This creates both opportunities and challenges for a society that needs a dose of radical thinking. 

While undoubtedly a debate can be had about whether or not sufficient taxpayer resources are being allocated to health currently, one fact is clear — we are all living longer.

This is a direct consequence of major advances in medicine and lifestyles over the past 40 years. 

The rooting out of smoking, in particular, is having a dramatic effect on life expectancy and it has helped raise the average lifespan by a massive 10 years since 1960 alone.

All of that translates into an ageing population and that cohort, naturally, has a greater need for health services in later life.

Add that factor to an accentuated bout of flu this winter, which disproportionately impacts elderly people, and you can quickly understand why logistics in hospitals is a big problem.

In the UK, prime minister Theresa May has said that an additional 2.5m patients were treated in emergency departments last year compared with 2010.

This puts intense pressure on a health system that is being squeezed by tighter central government finances as governments grapple with deficits. There are no simple solutions to this issue.

However, instead of debating it in dread, there ought to be a more constructive discussion. There are a number of inescapable facts. Populations are living longer and that is surely a good thing.

The health services are themselves sources of economic activity and have the capacity to create jobs. 

Instead of seeing health as some sort of black hole, we should consider it another growth industry that can move the economy forward. Moreover, it is a labour-intense activity in a world increasingly fretting about automation and the consequences for fewer jobs.

Imagine that, instead of forever aping the NHS, Ireland decided to catapult itself towards a league of healthcare standards that became the envy of many nations.

That is not as far-fetched as it seems.

For sure, the physical infrastructure of Irish healthcare is poor but the quality of doctors and nurses produced here has always been and continues to be world class.

It requires a dramatic and a politically led major overhaul in policy to healthcare for a new system to be created. A distinct and clear lift in taxpayer funds allocated to healthcare is needed.

It needs to be crystal clear how much of a shift in spending is needed, and what that means in actual income tax changes, to deliver the physical and labour resources needed to re-position healthcare within society.

The second requirement is to accept that inflation is the price of heathcare services.

Private sector price inflation is an inevitable consequence if we want a grown up attitude to properly fixing the healthcare deficit. What might the system look like if it were fixed?

The Netherlands is the stand-out template.

It scored No 1 in Europe in a health services survey last year by scoring 898 points out of a maximum 1,000. By way of context, the NHS, which probably is the closest comparable system to the HSE, scored only 730 points. 

The Dutch have hit top spot in the health services league in each of the past 10 years.

Their latest innovation was to establish 160 primary centres which are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. How complicated is that? Instead of seeing heathcare as a constant illustration of what is wrong in Ireland why can we not turn that on its head and think positively?

The Netherlands is a small open economy that depends on world trade for its economic wellbeing. Does that sound familiar?

Ireland, and its people, have the intelligence and capacity to figure all this out. We should not remain chained to an NHS mindset to fix the problem.

It needs something much more radical.

Joe Gill is the director of corporate broking at Goodbody Stockbrokers. His views are his own.


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