Jeremy Hunt has said he will prioritise improvements in the care of frail older people over the next year, prompting the head of one royal college to express concerns that start-of-life care is being neglected.

Speaking at a reception at the Conservative party conference in Manchester, the health secretary named his top priority for the coming year.

Mr Hunt said: “Next year we need to focus on the frail elderly and transform the way we give support to the most vulnerable older people.” He indicated he hoped to expand his work on this to also prioritise those with long term conditions.

He cited three ways of improving care for frail older people: the designation of a named clinician accountable for each patient’s care; work to integrate health and social care, including through more seven-day working; and greater use of joined-up technology.

On the latter point he said: “Why can’t care homes access [their occupants’] health record and update it every single day?”

Mr Hunt also said he believed the NHS had “grasped the nettle” of understanding the importance of transparency following the revelation of cover-ups in Robert Francis QC’s report into the care scandal at Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust.

HSJ discussed Mr Hunt’s priorities with David Richmond, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, this afternoon following a conference session co-hosted by his college.

Dr Richmond said start-of-life care “is not on the front seat” when it came to the government’s priorities.

“I’d like them to give it the same level of priority as end-of-life [care],” he said. “If we can get a healthy mother and a healthy baby, remaining healthy for the first years of its life, its trajectory is much more promising.”

Responding to a suggestion that increases in the numbers of midwives and health visitors boosted start-of-life care, Dr Richmond insisted needs were growing.

He said 50 to 60 per cent of new mothers now needed the support of a doctor as well as a midwife, whereas in the past that was true of around 30 per cent. The increased proportion was required due to issues including mothers being older, an increase in comorbidities and higher blood pressure.

“We need to have appropriate care in the appropriate place,” he said. “Our college wants to champion a 24-hour consultant presence on delivery suites. But there’s not a single unit in the country that has that.”