There is a real danger that the postcode lottery of healthcare provision in the UK will worsen if the National Health Service fails to make adequate preparations for the looming funding freeze from 2011, business and financial advisor Grant Thornton has warned.

As pressure on the NHS’ already stretched resources mounts, the Service must get to grips with the fact that the budget freeze will actually feel like “dramatic cuts” and therefore put in place solid plans to help it see through the tough times ahead, the group said.

According to Giles Newman, healthcare partner at Grant Thornton: “Many trusts are struggling to produce credible 'downside' forecasts that include sound decisions on which services to redesign and make more efficient or to pare back”, and he stressed that boards must “address this situation sooner rather than later in order to deal effectively with the increased challenges from 2011".

Furthermore, as the NHS increasingly juggles bulging demand with tighter purse strings, Newman warns of the risk of growing health inequalities as primary care trusts are forced to balance service provision with financial health, “despite their buying decisions being taken in the best interests of the local health economy”.

NHS Alliance warning
Just last week the NHS Alliance warned that health inequalities could deepen during these difficult economic times unless the Service places a greater emphasis on preventative health, and suggested that PCTs set aside on 5%-10% of their overall budget for practice-based commissioners to spend on health initiatives to address local issues and areas in need of improvement. And it is now essential that that health boards wise up to the fact that the spending increases seen in past years are a thing of the past.

Grant Thornton concludes that the NHS is facing “a period of uncertainty” as it struggles to balance pay settlements and union demands with “rationalisation of goods and services”, painting a rather gloomy picture that bears resemblance to that described by the British Medical Association, which has also warned of “dark times ahead” for the Service during the financial drought.