Labour’s summer push to highlight the anniversary of the foundation of the NHS (through imaginative online campaigning such as “baby number calculator”), and the threat to it from a second term of Coalition government, got me thinking about what the NHS means to me. Here are five reasons why I love the NHS:
1. It saved my life – twice. Once when I was a premature baby in 1972 and then again when I was hit by a life-threatening illness in 2009. I was unlucky enough to get a very rare illness called POEMS Syndrome. Caused by a bone marrow tumour putting antibodies into my blood, it attacked my nervous system to the extent that I couldn’t stand unaided or use my fingers properly and was hospitalised for five months. The symptoms are something like MS but faster progressing. Thankfully the NHS was able to diagnose it (though this took a long time) and save my life and throw the symptoms slowly into reverse by treating me with radiotherapy. If you are really ill like this the NHS is world class service. The degree of care I received from NHS staff was incredible – I was terrified and pretty much helpless (I could feed myself but not dress myself at my weakest) and nurses and care assistants ensured I kept my dignity and some kind of quality of life even at the worst points. They are doing a tough, physically demanding job dealing with some pretty unpleasant tasks yet almost all of them do it with patience and personal kindness. I felt like I was picked up by a huge but human organisation and wrapped in its collective arms until they fixed me. When you are desperately ill, knowing there are dozens and dozens of people, from Professors of neurology to cleaners and ambulance drivers all trying to help you is an amazing source of reassurance.
2. Then it taught me to walk again. This took almost a year – the first two months in a residential rehabilitation ward, and then many more months of outpatient visits to and home visits from local physiotherapists. Thanks to their persistence I got from being a wheelchair user who was told I might never walk again, to a reasonably paced leader of voter ID teams (with a walking stick and ankle splints). The NHS isn’t just about acute care it is about a whole range of less glamorous services designed to stop people getting ill, get them better when they do, and help them manage chronic conditions.
3. All this vast array of services represents good value for money. We provide a health service for every citizen who needs it, free at the point of use, for $3405 per capita, compared to $8508 per capita at Purchasing Power Parity for the USA’s private healthcare system. The US system leaves a lot of people not getting the best care because 44 million of them are uninsured and 38 million are inadequately insured – someone with my condition in the US might put off going to hospital, hoping they would get better as they were concerned about the cost of care, until a lot of irreparable nerve damage had been done. Lack of health insurance is estimated to cause 45,000 preventable deaths in the USA every year. There will still be an estimated 26 million uninsured US residents after the roll-out of the Obamacare programme is completed in 2019.
4. The NHS helps unite the country. In an increasingly fragmented society, there are very few institutions that are universal and are almost universally appreciated and supported. Maybe the BBC and the Armed Forces, but both have their critics. The NHS is the standout example of something about the UK almost everyone celebrates. Almost everyone will also use it at some point, as people who queue jump by going private will often find themselves back in an NHS hospital if they are acutely ill as private ones don’t provide the full spectrum of services.
5. The NHS represents socialist values in operation. There is a good reason why rightwing US politicians refer pejoratively to “socialised medicine” – because that’s what it is, universal healthcare provided by society based on need, not the market. I don’t think I’ve quoted Karl Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Programme” in a recent column, but the NHS truly does embody the concept of “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs!” The fact it works well sends a powerful signal that we should not assume the market provides the best solution to every other need facing society either.
The NHS isn’t perfect. After I was ill, I spent four years scrutinising local health services in Hackney as Chair of the Council’s Health Scrutiny Commission. We found plenty of things that could be improved and saw plenty of damage already being done by the spending crunch and the unnecessary and costly reorganisation brought in by the Coalition.
But for an idea that was just a dream for the pre-War generation, and was brought into reality by a Labour government 66 years ago, against heavy BMA and Tory opposition, it is something quite extraordinary that has had a transformative effect on millions of lives.
If future Labour governments can create a legacy half as impressive as the NHS, and at the same time sustain our greatest achievement, we should be very proud.