Young people have been central to the NHS from the very beginning – in fact the first patient to be treated by the NHS was a 13 year old. As we celebrate the NHS’s 70th birthday we need to recognise the support it provides to young people and focus on how we can continue to improve the health of the 11.7 million young people aged 10-24 in the UK.
On July 5, 1948, the NHS was launched based on the ideal that good healthcare should be available to all regardless of wealth. Through the years and multiple reforms its three core objectives have remained unchanged:
From the very beginning of the NHS young people have played an important role in its development. The first patient to be treated by the NHS was 13 year old Sylvia Diggory, who remained a staunch champion of the NHS throughout her lifetime. The first female hospital governor was 21 year old Elizabeth Farrelly who was personally appointed by Nye Bevan in 1948. She was the only woman and the youngest person on the governing body of the Royal London Hospital in East London.
As part of its commitment to meet the needs of everyone the NHS has come a long way in its support of children and young people’s health and wellbeing. In 1954 daily visits for children were introduced. Prior to this children in hospital were only allowed to see parents at weekends and were often placed on adult wards with no attempt to explain what was happening to them or why they were there. 1958 saw the introduction of a polio and diphtheria vaccination programme open to anyone under the age of 15 which dramatically decreased instances of these diseases and increased childhood survival rates. Vaccinations programmes continue today with university students offered the MenACWY vaccination and the introduction of the HPV vaccination programme in 2008.
In 1994 the organ donor register was introduced thanks to the campaigning of the family of 24 year old Peter Cox, who died due to a brain tumor and requested that his organs be donated to help others. The importance of patent experiences and listening to the voices of those people using services is now recognised in the NHS, with co-production embedded into the commissioning and development of services.
But despite these groundbreaking developments and recognition of the different health needs of children and young people we still have a long way to go. It remains the case that young people often fall between the gaps of child and adult services. The challenges posed from the shift from an NHS focused on infectious disease to one primarily managing long term conditions can play out differently for young people. Adolescence is the age when the first signs of of many long term conditions emerge and three quarters of all psychiatric disorders start by age 24. It is also the age when people shift to independently manage their health and whilst young people are regular users of health services they report lower satisfaction rates than other age groups. At this time of many transitions in life the right support from health services can make a fundamental difference.
The NHS Youth Forum, established in 2014, has ensured that young people are helping to inform this journey. Their work includes a focus on consent and confidentiality together with improving young people’s understanding of their healthcare rights. The Young People’s Health Partnership, a consortium of 6 young people’s health charities, was established in 2013 and has worked closely with NHS England running NHS takeover days and providing support and advice on a wide range of issues. There are networks of voluntary sector services across England working with the NHS to support young people as well as health services developed to meet young people’s specific needs. The Health and Wellbeing Alliance is an example of the VCSE sector working in partnership with NHS England to improve services and patient experience.
Effectively supporting young people’s health can provide us with unique opportunities to reduce health inequalities and support positive health behaviours before they are set in stone improving productivity and reducing health service costs.
As the NHS celebrates and reflects on its historic 70 year achievement and looks ahead, it is important that we build on the advances we have made and invest in young people’s health for today, tomorrow and for future generations.
Vicky Robinson is the Membership & Administrative Officer for AYPH, the independent voice for young people’s health, and the project facilitator for the Young People’s Health Partnership.