If you’ve turned on the television or read a newspaper or, really, been alive in any way at all this week, you’ll know that there are NHS-related rumblings coming from across the pond.
I was sixteen before I knew that there was a fundamental difference in the funding of the American healthcare system compared with the funding of the British healthcare system. I’d lived my whole life in a country where we have universal healthcare. I had experienced at first hand the systems in Malta and Germany and Australia, where they also have universal healthcare. I was aware that no such thing existed in most of the developing world and that the economic divide would mean world-class healthcare for the rich and, very often, nothing at all for everyone else… but I had no idea that healthcare in America operated under the same basic idea. I mean, why would I? What possible reason could I have had for thinking that the world’s only remaining superpower wouldn’t make sure that all of its citizens were able to access medical care when they needed it?
The current ruckus in America was quite neatly summed up on last night’s Mock the Week, when Russell Howard said: “Barack Obama is trying to get free healthcare for 46 million people in America, and this has made him unpopular in America.”
This is completely illogical and downright stupid, but also true. I suspect that under normal circumstances, we would quite happily have left America to get on with it — having lived through eight years of the Bush and Blair Show, most of us have come to expect stupidity from the American government and to simply be grateful when that stupidity is aimed at domestic policy and therefore not the sort that gets us dragged into a war. Except that in an attempt to demonstrate the evil of universal healthcare, the Republicans launched an attack on the NHS. This has included the branding of the National Institute of Clinical Excellence as a ‘death panel’, the claim that Senator Kennedy would be thought too old to be treated for his brain tumour, and, of course, the piece de resistance, an editorial from the Investor Business Daily stating that Stephen Hawking “wouldn’t have a chance in the UK, where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless”.
It’s been referred to as ‘a beautiful hypothesis destroyed by a single ugly fact’.
And once we had stopped laughing at the Investor Business Daily for its inability to use Wikipedia, we turned our attention to the NHS. In the last few days, the NHS has been defended by the Prime Minister, Professor Hawking, and the BMA, and, more significantly, by the great British public.
This is what I believe:
The NHS is a national treasure. I got into this because I wanted to be a doctor for people who need doctors. I want to work in a system that — with all of its flaws and annoyances and red-tape — still believes that we’re here to treat a person, not a social status or a bank account or an insurance company. I am alive because my father lived for seventeen years longer than he was expected to, because he was given dialysis and transplant surgery that didn’t cost him a penny; because my mother’s emergency caesarean was necessary and so it was done, without a phone call to an insurance company ever needing to be made; because in this country we see it as our responsibility to look after our youngest citizens, especially if that means keeping a very premature baby in intensive care for four weeks at no cost to her parents. I have a grandfather who is 81 years old and has every comorbidity imaginable, but the NHS has never given up on him and he’s still going strong. I see patients who get better and go home, having never had to make a choice between looking after their health and making sure there’s still a roof over their family’s head. I’ve met a remarkable man who will be on thrice-weekly dialysis for the rest of his life, but who is so full of joy, living a full life and feeling good, and never, ever needing to worry about where the money’s coming from, which is exactly the way it should be. I believe that the grounding principles of Clement Atlee’s NHS have never been forgotten: a universal service for all, based on clinical need and not on ability to pay.
I look at the patients I’ve seen, the people I’ve met, and the family I’ve got… and then I look at the NHS, and I think, all of this is here because of you.