By Robert Verkerk PhD

Founder, executive and scientific director, Alliance for Natural Health International


It feels like yesterday when a group of us natural health campaigners across Europe were looking for better ways of describing the kind of healthcare that exists outside of the medical establishment. Complementary medicine, alternative medicine and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) were among the common descriptors coming under fire (for obvious reasons). I put forward the notion of using the term sustainability, but was rapidly shot down. The word was too long and no one would understand what it means.

Well, it’s now 16 years on. The term is now widely used in different contexts, but most uses of it seem to avoid what I think is the most obvious meaning, and that relates to the duration of its existence. For some, sustainability only means environmental sustainability so if you apply it to healthcare, you consider mainly things like carbon footprints and pollution from pharmaceutical residues.

But let’s face it – it’s bigger than that. Unsustainable systems die out, sustainable ones go on. The current trajectory of the UK system, the so-called jewel in Britain’s welfare crown, may need to go onto life support if something doesn't change quite fundamentally. That’s if you believe the markers that are doing the rounds. It may not survive – at least in its present form.

Early beginnings

We’ve been working on the principle of applying sustainability to healthcare for many years now. After giving an inaugural lecture at the then newly-established National Institute of Integrative Medicine on sustainable healthcare in Melbourne, Australia, I was invited to submit a paper in the Australasian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine (ACNEM) Journal, which was published later in the year.

Since then, things have moved on a lot – in terms of the world around us, health systems, science, medical practice, recognition of the importance of non-pharmaceutical modalities, the shared upstream causes of a myriad diseases – and much more.

The unique case of the UK

The UK presents a particular challenge for sustainability – and that challenge is related to the very thing that so many Brits hold so close to their hearts: the National Health Service or NHS. It’s after all the half century-old jewel in the crown of the UK’s social welfare system. It’s paid for by the taxpayer – so regardless of the size of your wallet or where you live, you can receive healthcare – for free, kind of.

But what happens when taxes can’t cover the costs of the service anymore. Simon Stevens, head of Public Health England, and the King’s Fund, the think tank that oversees the NHS and its future, keep complaining that the NHS is running out of money and can’t go on delivering what is expected of it. They’ve tried to slice and dice the thing one way or another, to decentralise, to put more money in – nothing’s resolving the problem – one linked to economic sustainability.

“It’s free, why should I bother taking responsibility?”

But there’s a bigger problem – the NHS is busting under the weight of preventable chronic diseases that it’s actually struggling to manage, let alone reverse (remember when we used to use the word ‘cure’?). Part of the problem is that by the time people get seen by a doctor – the disease is so deep seated, it’s hard to reverse. If that’s not enough, doctors and allied health professionals don’t get much training in things like nutrition and lifestyle factors that cause the diseases, and it ends up being a case of ‘too little, too late’.

Quite a few of us do think there is a solution – and we’ve been working with and taking soundings from a wide range of experts both in the UK and well beyond for some years now. And that’s what our position paper is about. Really importantly – our position paper isn’t about trying to solve any of the NHS’s internal problems, it focuses almost entirely on what can be done outside the NHS to take the burden off it. That means getting people into the driving seat of their own health, and moving the primary focus of health, wellbeing and disease prevention mostly outside the NHS, and into homes, schools and workplaces. It also means engaging a huge workforce of health professionals who have been largely marginalised by the NHS’ rigid, standard care guidance.

Read the blueprint

Our position paper was born out of another talk I gave – this time in late 2017 at the All Party Parliamentary Group for Integrated Healthcare, chaired by the inimitable David Tredinnick MP. I was specifically asked to talk on the implications of Brexit – so we explored what might happen in a world free from the worst excesses of EU legislation.

We obviously shouldn’t be too idealistic – unless we also maintain a healthy dose of realism. So that’s where we are – over a year later – with a draft position paper, on which we’re looking to get input from a wide range of interests, as well as endorsement. Together we are stronger!

We’ve called the position paper: ‘A Blueprint for Health System Sustainability in the UK’. We’re referring to it as a blueprint, because it’s fitting.

Sneak preview of the cover of the draft position paper

If you’re eligible, we want to hear from you!

If you’re a UK resident, you’re a representative of an organisation in the healthcare space, including associations and educators, or you’re a registered practitioner, whether you work inside or outside the NHS, we’d love to have your consultation input when we open our consultation process on 9 April. Deadline for comments and endorsements will be 5.00pm on 7 May.

Please email the ANH team at [email protected] and include ‘SHS consultation’ in the subject line. Let us know your organisation or your registration body. We’ll make sure you receive by email week commencing 9 April the draft position paper, along with a short guideline document.


Many of the principles we’ve brought together in the position paper are applicable outside the UK and in due course, with the right collaborators, we’ll be looking to adapt them to other parts of the world.

We look forward to hearing from interested persons and organisations. And please share this with friends and colleagues you think would be interested.

In sustainable health


Rob Verkerk PhD

Founder, executive & scientific director

Alliance for Natural Health International