Dementia cure would free up money for health service ‘at a stroke’ – NHS head

A drug to cure or slow dementia would boost healthcare spending “at a stroke”, the head of the NHS has said.

Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, said a scientific breakthrough to treat Alzheimer’s and similar degenerative diseases would immediately free up funds from social care that could be invested in the health service.

The development would trigger the “biggest single shift” in funding but the prospect appears a long way off, Mr Stevens (pictured) told the Public Accounts Select Committee.

He said: “The biggest single shift, which does not appear immediately in sight given that more than 99% of pharmaceutical clinical trials on dementia medications have failed over the last decade, but the biggest shift, if it happened, would be a medical treatment to slow or cure Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

“And if that happened, then it would at a stroke substitute what is currently social care spending and it would become healthcare funding.”

The NHS is also looking at how technology such as biosensors and home adaptations could improve productivity in the care sector, Mr Stevens said.

Sir Chris Wormald, permanent secretary to the Department of Health and Social Care, told the committee that new Secretary of State Matt Hancock had “a particular interest in technology”.

“I think you can expect him to push exactly the kind of things that you are describing,” he said.

However, he warned that there was a “long way to go” before technology resolved problems in health and social care.

“A lot of countries are looking at these things, when we go and look they have not yet got very far, so the Japanese for example, who have done more than anyone, do not for a second believe they have cracked this issue via technology,” he said.

Mr Stevens told the committee he had “good news to report” on delayed transfers of care – when patients are ready for discharge but are still taking up hospital beds – due to successful integration between health and social care.

He said: “As a result of very vigorous focus on hospital discharge between hospitals, community health services and local council social care services we have genuinely turned a corner in delayed transfers of care.

“We were running around 6,500 hospital beds that were in this formal definition of people waiting as a delayed transfer, we are now down to 4,500.

“So incredible strides have been made across the country as a result of joined-up work between health and social care.”

In an interview with the Health Service Journal (HSJ) published on Wednesday, Mr Stevens called on new Health Secretary Mr Hancock to lobby for a social care funding deal and champion patient safety.

“The agenda Jeremy (Hunt) set around patient safety is an important one … and it will be important that it continues … and I think his more recent emphasis on social care is something that’s obviously going to be vital to get right over the next several months,” he said.

Mr Stevens also appeared to suggest the four-hour A&E waiting time target may be outdated.

When asked if the waiting time standard and 18-week referral to elective treatment targets were fit for purpose, he said “there have been significant clinical practice changes in urgent and emergency care pathways over the years”.

The four-hour target, which means that 95% of patients should be admitted, transferred or discharged from A&E within four hours, has often been seen as a barometer of how the NHS as a whole is performing.

But performance against the standard has slipped as hospitals face rising demands for care.

Meanwhile, he told the publication that heart disease, cancer care, mental health, health inequalities and children’s services were the five major priorities for the NHS 10-year plan, which is due to be published later this year.

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2018, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Stefan Rousseau / PA Wire.