As the cold winter weather sets in, we should all spare a thought for those working hard in our NHS and our emergency services.
As many of us enjoy time off with family and friends over Christmas and the New Year, many of them are hard at work keeping us safe and looking after us if we fall ill.
Winter places extra pressure on our NHS through a combination of very understandable factors – like seasonal bugs which can affect NHS staff as well as patients, changing working patterns, and of course meeting the needs of our ageing population.
Sadly, there are still too many people who end up making unintended visits to A&E as a consequence of drinking too much alcohol – a problem which can become particularly acute over the festive period.
This Christmas season if you are planning to enjoy a drink – as many of us do – then, for the sake of yourself and our health service, I would urge you to do so safely and responsibly.
Last year, our NHS staff across Scotland worked incredibly hard to deal with a tough winter, and since then we’ve put in place a number of measures to help ease the pressure on our frontline A&E.
As well as record investment in our NHS – funding topped £12bn for the first time this year – there are record numbers of staff now working in it.
In particular, the number of A&E consultants has almost trebled since the SNP took office.
But there are also more nurses and midwives – and we’ve increased student nursing and midwifery intakes in recent years.
We’ve set aside over £10 million to help health boards build on their own plans for winter, and this year’s winter guidance to health boards was issued far earlier than in previous years – to help ensure that they are as ready as they can be.
Of course, we can’t predict completely what winter will bring, but all health boards now have their resilience plans in place.
Beyond getting people seen as quickly as possible, it’s also important to ensure that people can be discharged from hospital as soon as they’re well enough to leave.
That’s why we’re investing £100 million over three years to build up social care capacity and improve local discharge procedures.
Glasgow is one of the many areas across Scotland benefitting from this investment.
In the last year Glasgow City Council and NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde have opened around 100 intermediate care beds and changed their discharge policies, with a focus towards discharging patients within three days of being found to be well enough to leave hospital, and assessing older people for long-term needs either at home or in more homely settings.
There’s been a dramatic drop in the number of hospital beds lost to delayed discharge in Glasgow – this year it’s nearly half what it was heading into winter last year, meaning that far fewer elderly patients are waiting in hospital.
Here in Glasgow, there has also been the opening of the new Queen Elizabeth University Hospital earlier this year.
While such a huge change to our healthcare provision was always going to be challenging, this state-of-the-art facility will benefit Glasgow for years to come.
Needless to say, A&E waiting times will fluctuate from one week to the next. But as we go into this year’s festive period, Scotland is the only part of the UK with better performance on A&E waiting times than was the case this time last year.
Let’s remember that every one of us can play a small part in helping our health service run smoothly – if we ensure we know who to turn to if we fall ill.
Accident and Emergency departments should always be used for genuine accidents and emergencies.
Meanwhile, if you feel unwell and cannot wait until your GP is open – NHS 24’s freephone 111 number and out-of-hours GP services are available.
And for minor and common conditions you can always get advice from your local pharmacy.
All of our NHS staff deserve credit and our thanks for their hard work.
As First Minister – and as someone who was privileged to serve as Health Secretary for five years – I’m committed to ensuring they have the support they need in the wonderful job that they do, 365 days a year.
Lastly, since this is my last column before Christmas, let me wish all of you a very happy and peaceful festive period.
Originally published in the Evening Times, Tuesday 15th December 2015.