The NHS is our world champion


It was fitting that Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony should pay homage to the NHS, which was founded in 1948, the year that London last held the Olympic Games.

 

NHS Beds at the Olympics

 

Viewers in some countries may have looked on in bemusement that in a celebration of our culture and history we would lionise a system for delivering healthcare. But if you want to learn about Britishness, look no further than our health service. 


The NHS was founded in 1948, the same year that London last held the Olympic Games, so it was perhaps fitting that Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony should pay homage to this institution. Viewers in some countries may have looked on in bemusement that in a celebration of our culture and history we would lionise something as prosaic as a system for delivering healthcare. Indeed, there have been home-grown critics of its inclusion. But for me it made perfect sense. If you want to learn about Britishness, look no further than our health service.


Conceived by a Welshman and his Scottish wife, and based on a report written by an Englishman six years earlier, there is nothing quite like the NHS elsewhere in the world. It embodies some basic British values that have been distilled into the very fabric of its being. It is cranky and impractical and archaic. But it is also a piece of remarkable organisation and originality. It is underpinned by a belief in fairness; a belief that all individuals are of equal importance.


No one can queue quite like the British, and isn’t this perfectly demonstrated by waiting lists? The NHS still provides a place for original thought and enterprise, free from commercial pressures. It nurtures world-renowned research, and centres of excellence respected around the globe. Its workforce represents every nation of our Commonwealth and beyond. And, of course, it provides us with the perfect opportunity to indulge in our national pastime: complaining.


But while we love to roll our eyes at the mention of it, we come together and fight when we feel that it is threatened. It is frequently the battleground on which the British people resist government meddling and surveillance. It is an example of how we respect and value each other, that we all pay into a system for the benefit of the greater good and, through it, show compassion and support for the weakest in our society.


It is no coincidence that modern sport originated in Britain. At the heart of the sporting ethos is the notion of fair play, and similarly fairness lies at the very centre of how we organise healthcare.


As I watched all those nations parade around the Olympic stadium, waving their flags, I reminded myself that for all the NHS’s faults it is still one of the cheapest healthcare systems devised, produces some of the best results and leads the world in equality of access.


That is some achievement for our little old country. The NHS is the crystallisation of everything that is great about Britain because it sums up our collective consciousness perfectly.


This is not to say that the NHS is perfect. Far from it. There are faults, but it genuinely upsets me every time I hear of incompetence, poor care or malpractice in the NHS because it is more than just a way of delivering healthcare. When the NHS fails, it is personal to those who care about it in a way that one would not feel about a commercialised or corporate-run healthcare system. I was also pleased to see the NHS acknowledged in the opening ceremony because its existence is one of many outstanding achievements in public health and medicine to which this country can lay claim.
Britain is a tiny island, but consider it in the context of medical discoveries and it is a giant. We have contributed more to the world’s health than any other nation. Modern medicine has been one of our most successful exports, our greatest gift to the world. We gave the world antisepsis in surgery, modern nursing and anaesthetic. We performed the first cardiac catheterisation, the first successful blood transfusion, the first bone marrow transplant. We produced the first IVF baby. We invented blood pressure measurement, the clinical thermometer, surgical forceps, the ophthalmoscope, the syringe, CT scans and ultrasound. We have pioneered the treatment of epilepsy, cancer, infectious diseases and diabetes. We created the smallpox vaccine and discovered DNA.


Techniques and treatments developed in Britain are used around the globe. We proved that mosquitoes transmit malaria, that carcinogens in the environment can lead to cancer, and discovered the importance of vitamins. Hundreds of drugs have been discovered or developed on these shores, not least penicillin, which alone has saved millions of lives. We even discovered Viagra, which may not save lives but certainly saves sex lives.
Regardless of how many medals we win, let’s not forget that in medicine and healthcare, we’ve already got the gold.


Max Pemberton 05 Aug 2012

 

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