Helen Barratt: In praise of the NHS

Studying for an MSc in Public Health this year, with students from a range of backgrounds, has been refreshing after years of learning and working with medics. However in classes, ‘doctor bashing’ has been de rigueur. I don’t for one moment claim that we’re above censure, but the criticism levelled at the profession has become a bit wearing.

In the UK, this isn’t just confined to criticism of doctors, but headlines about problems within the wider NHS provide daily fodder for the media, and seem to have replaced the weather as a favoured topic of conversation. In this, the week that has seen the Darzi report published, and later the 60th anniversary of the founding of the NHS, the BBC is running an online forum asking about ‘NHS experiences’ which has so far attracted thousands of comments, and also commissioned a poll asking the public for ‘their biggest fears about hospital’ .

At a recent dinner with non-medical friends, the conversation was dominated by NHS tales, all naturally worse than the last, from how someone had had to move wards during a hospital admission, to how it had taken a GP two consultations to prescribe medication for a rash. Similarly, at another party, I got talking to an American lady. Despite living almost over the road from one of London’s most highly regarded teaching hospitals, she told me that if ever she or her family were ill, she would insist her insurance company flew them straight to Baltimore so they could be seen at Johns Hopkins Hospital. I never found out what the insurance company thought about her plan.

I’m not claiming that doctors always get it right, and I’m not going to trot out arguments about how hard the staff work – most readers will know that. The NHS is by no means perfect: I’ve seen it fail not only my patients, but also my family and friends. We do though have a system in the UK which provides world-class care to the vast majority, largely free at the point of need, and regardless of the ability to pay. Contrast that with the USA, for example, where 47 million people don’t have healthcare coverage, let alone access to hospitals such as Johns Hopkins.

Perhaps this week, as we approach the 60th anniversary, we could have a moratorium on moaning about the NHS, just for a few days – let’s reflect on its good points, however briefly!