What’s the point of… the NHS?

The NHS, for the sake of my overseas readers, is the British National Health Service. Set up shortly after the war, its purpose was to provide medical and dental care ‘free at the point of use’ for all British citizens.

Every man, woman and child in the country has access, not only to hospital-based care for injuries and major diseases, but to a ‘GP’ (General Practitioner), nurses and midwives at a local surgery or health centre.

Shortly after my post asking ‘What’s the point of prison?’, the Today programme provided me with fantastic material for a similar question about the purpose of the NHS.

The context was the release of a report from the National Audit Office revealing that the gap in life expectancy between the poorest and wealthiest parts of the population in England is continuing to widen.  Presenter John Humphries asked a GP, Dr Sam Everington, and British Medical Association [BMA] President Sir Michael Marmot how the health of the poorer members of our society could be improved.  He was astounded by Dr Everington’s reply:

What I would argue is what you need is a much bigger and wider role for GPs, so in our centre we provide a hundred different projects which includes a job advisor.

“But that’s not what you’re trained to do!” remarked Humphrys.

Dr E – Oh, but it’s entirely about health.  The evidence is absolutely clear, that if you get somebody into work or if you get them trained almost in anything you will improve their health.

JH – But it’s not your job to do that, you’re a doctor.

Dr E – But it is my job.  The traditional thought about a GP was I’m just there to prescribe an anti-depressant…

JH – Well no, to make us well again…

Dr E – Exactly!

Making people well, he argued, is not just about alleviating their symptoms, but addressing the fundamental causes of their ill-health. If being out of work means “they’re staying at home, they’re inside, [and] they’re getting vitamin D deficient”, the best way to improve their health is to get them out of the house and being productive again.

What I love about this approach is that, like Rob Owen’s stance on the purpose of prison, it sees people as holistic beings.  A person arriving at a doctor’s surgery is not just a bundle of symptoms, but a complex human being in whom all parts are inter-related.  By addressing the needs of the whole person, rather than the specific symptom, you have a greater chance of making a long-term difference.

“And does it work?” Humphrys asked.

“Yes, it does.  It’s very successful.”

To listen to the interview, click here.

2 Comments On This Topic
  1. Father Stephen
    on Jul 19th at 8:09 am

    So, if work keeps us healthy, why do so many people have to take time off because they are ill?

  2. newsong40
    on Jul 19th at 8:51 am

    Because a lot of them are doing either the wrong work or with the wrong priorities and focus (or having to work with others who are in the wrong job, working with the wrong priorities and focus!).

    Some people, on learning that on the New Earth we will have work to do, find that a horrifying thought ‘I thought I was finally going to get to rest!’ they protest. But if you ask if they’d prefer an eternity sitting around on a cloud playing a harp, that doesn’t appeal either.

    We’re made to be purposeful beings, when we’re working with a sense of purpose and achievement – in balance with relaxation and relationship – we are more fulfilled than when we’re loafing around watching daytime TV!


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