Chronic illness poses 'almost unquantifiable' challenge for Welsh NHS

  • ITV Wales health reporter Katie Fenton went to meet some of those living with chronic conditions.

Chronic health conditions pose an "extraordinary, almost unquantifiable" challenge for the NHS in Wales, health experts have warned.

It is estimated that 48% of people in Wales are living with a chronic or long-term condition, with 19% experiencing two or more.

But an ongoing Senedd inquiry into how well people with such conditions are supported has found that number is likely to increase, with more person-centred care needed.

A chronic condition is a health condition or disease that is persistent, severe or otherwise long-lasting in its effects.

Tracy Cross, from Cardiff, was diagnosed with COPD and asthma after doctors initially put her breathlessness, which began after giving birth to her fourth child, down to depression.

"I was getting frustrated with myself, getting upset," she said.

Doctors initially put Tracy's breathlessness down to depression. Credit: Sharp End, ITV Cymru Wales

"They told me that the breathlessness was down to me being upset and depression and I said, 'no there's more to it than that, I know there is'.

"It just made me feel really horrible. I couldn't do much, I had other children to look after at the time too and it was getting me down but I swore it wasn't down to the depression."

Tracy was eventually put on a six-week pulmonary rehabilitation programme, which provided her with breathing exercises and advice on how to manage her condition.

She said the programme "dramatically" changed her life.

"I couldn't walk from the waiting room to the doctor's office without feeling breathless. I've gone from that to doing a 5K [walk], now a 10K.

"Had I not had that and learnt about it I probably wouldn't be here now."

But Tracy, who works closely with the charity Asthma and Lung UK, said access to pulmonary rehabilitation is "patchy" across Wales.

Dad-of-two Thomas Leahy, who lives in Barry, was diagnosed with relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis in 2022 after multiple hospital visits.

The university lecturer initially paid privately for treatment to avoid a "massive" NHS waiting list, but is now under NHS care.

He said some people with chronic conditions are being left "in the wilderness".

Thomas has infusion therapy twice a year to manage his symptoms. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

"You just feel like in a sense you've dropped out of society and society's forgotten about you, and you're just stuck in limbo of pain.

"For me, what governments need to do is provide people with opportunities to achieve their best alongside that chronic condition.

"That allows people to contribute to society, economy, education, etc. So it makes no sense to have a system where people are being delayed doing that."

Swansea University health economist Pippa Anderson said chronic illness is "an extraordinary, almost unquantifiable challenge" for the health service.

"One of the big drivers of course is that we're all living longer and as you live longer you can accumulate problems that can be managed by the health service.

"It has a huge financial impact because you have to pay for more health professionals, more drugs, more infrastructure.

"Politically it's not so easy to get good vibes from your voters if you put in interventions that pay off way down the line.

"If you put in interventions early you'll get the benefits 40-50 years down the line, whereas trying to deal with the crisis now by throwing money at the problem isn't very helpful. It's a very difficult situation for any government."

One expert from Swansea University said one of the big drivers of the challenges in the Welsh NHS is that we're all living longer. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

Russell George MS, chair of the Senedd's Health and Social Care Committee, said the inquiry into chronic conditions has seen some "emerging themes".

"We know that there are more people now living with chronic conditions and multiple conditions and it's predicted that that's only going to increase."

"We can see there's a need for person-centred care, and by that I mean the person being at the centre of decision-making. Where they may have multiple chronic conditions, services should be wrapped around them rather than looked at in isolation.

"We found that those living in more deprived areas are more likely to have multiple conditions and poorer health outcomes as well."

The Welsh Government said it will respond to the inquiry "in due course", with the Health Minister due to appear before the inquiry next month.

It also said it expects health boards to provide the support and care people with chronic conditions need.

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