A sustainable health service for the future

Helen Birtwhistle explains why health and sport organisations need to cooperate.

As director of the Welsh NHS Confederation – the organisation which represents the seven Health Boards and three NHS Trusts that make up NHS Wales – I am well aware of the challenges faced by our health service.

An increasingly ageing population, which also suffers from high levels of inactivity, serves to increase demand for our services at a time when finances are extremely constrained. Of course, some of these trends are not preventable, and the fact more people are living longer is something to celebrate. But a significant amount of the pressures currently faced by NHS Wales could be eased if more people took responsibility for their own wellbeing.

The way people live their lives has enormous reverberations for the health service and for other public services. It is proven that an active lifestyle decreases the likelihood of a number of illnesses and chronic conditions. I believe that we all, as citizens first and service users second, have a responsibility to look after ourselves and not pile up pressure on the NHS because of the lifestyle choices we make.

Unfortunately, the evidence shows that many are continuing to live unhealthy lifestyles. Wales has the highest obesity rates for both adults and children of all the countries in the UK, with 58% of adults classified as overweight or obese. For children, the figure sits at 35%.

We also have the highest rate of long-term limiting illness in the UK – the sole most expensive aspect of NHS care. Many of these conditions are linked to unhealthy (and often inactive) lifestyles choices, and these trends in obesity and chronic conditions look set to continue to rise in the future, unless there is a drastic change in how welive our lives.

That’s why today, the Welsh NHS Confederation and Sport Wales are announcing a new memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the two organisations. Never before have sport and health joined forces in this way and we feel this is major step towards tackling the tide of inactivity that we face.

The MOU – which will initially cover the next three years – sets out six areas of cooperation, including working together to support people to enjoy more active, more equal and healthier lives and encouraging people to take more responsibility for their health for future generations. We hope to drive a mass shift in public thinking about the way people view their lifestyles and the impact this has on their health and wellbeing.

We realise we have work to do, and through partnerships like these we can create lasting change.The wellbeing of the population is not just down to the NHS. Other services, organisations and third sector groups have roles to play, and, importantly, so do citizens themselves.

Thepotential benefits of becoming more physically activeare well documented; reducing the risk of many chronic conditions, including coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, mental illness and cancer. Alongside these risk reductions, it is argued that regularly participating in sport and physical activity also benefits an individual’s self esteem, promotes social inclusion, counters anti social behaviour and plays a part in integrating people into the community around them(Sport England 2013, WHO 2014.) It is worth noting that people do not have to be dedicated sportspeople to reap these benefits, just taking part in a small amount of physical activity a few days a week can have lasting positive effects.

As Dr Brian Johnson, GP and Honorary Medical Advisor to Public Health Wales, says: “Sport can enrich our lives in so many ways; through social enjoyment, feelings of well-being and benefits to both our physical and mental health. There is a very strong proven relationship between activity and our health status and physical activity is considered to be as powerful as many drugs. Regular exercise significantly reduces hospital admissions for many conditions and even the critically ill, if regular exercisers, can reduce their length of stay and time in critical care.

“As a GP, I encourage my patients to be more active, in whatever way they can. For those who take up their responsibility, I have seen them avoid the need for medication or reduce their drug requirements and indeed avoid both hospital referrals and surgery.

“If exercise through sport can be melded into our lives, it has the potential to radically change our experience of life both in quality and longevity. I welcome this cooperation in the urgent need to reduce the pandemic of inactivity.”

Partnerships have already been built between the health service and our colleagues in sport, such as the work of BetsiCadwaladrUniversity Health Board with Disability Sport Wales which has provided a new service for disabled people to increase their level of physical activity and involvement in sport. We hope to build on projects such as these as part of the memorandum.

Sport is an area where we can capitalise on opportunities to improve the health of the people of Wales, and alongside this, reduce the number of people relying on the health care system and other public services. We have a big job ahead of us, and change will not be realised overnight. Nonetheless I and my colleagues at the Welsh NHS Confederation are excited for the future and we look forward to working with Sport Wales and seeing what we can achieve together.

Helen Birtwhistle is the director of the Welsh NHS Confederation.

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