Simon Wessely: Stephen Hawking and his love letter to the NHS

simon_wesselyWalking into the Royal Society of Medicine last Saturday (19 August) for my first official duty as the incoming President, two things suggested that this was not going to be the normal event I had been promised. Firstly, there were over 500 people present, and nearly all were younger than me. Secondly, there was a line of TV vans outside.

The first was explained by the title of the meeting, an open discussion about the future of the NHS, put together by Discourse, a group that promotes debate on the issues of the day. So we had sixth formers, medical students, and junior doctors in large numbers. Some of them had brought their parents with them, a reversal of the usual custom. It was therefore different to the usual audience in any building whose name starts with the word Royal. It was lively—you don’t normally get heckling at medical meetings. The format encouraged audience participation and they did just that. The panellists were only allowed the briefest of opening statements, and then it switched into a more interactive format. Heckling apart, it worked well. Sarah Wollaston MP and Chair of the Health Select Committee demonstrated why she was re elected to that critical post unopposed, showing grace under pressure, as indeed did other seasoned campaigners such as Nigel Edwards, Philippa Whitford, and Clare Gerada (aka my wife). Rachel Clarke spoke for the generation in the hall with great passion. Then again, she was a career journalist before she went into medicine.

But much of this was familiar stuff, and not sufficient to explain the TV vans blocking Wimpole Street. They had come for one person only, the keynote speaker at the end of the day, a certain Professor Stephen Hawking.

I introduced him with the time honoured phrase “our next speaker needs no introduction.” Now we all know that whoever says that usually does the opposite and reads out the speaker’s entire CV. On this occasion I was as good as my word, and promptly sat down. For those, who like me, have never heard Stephen Hawking speak before, he was spell binding. From the moment he arrived on stage I am afraid there are no words other than the cliché, “you could have heard a pin drop,” to describe the atmosphere. And oh boy did he deliver.

What he gave us was a love letter to the NHS, full of detail, pathos, and also good jokes. Apparently many years ago, “The doctor told my wife I was going to die.” Long pause for comic effect “I changed my doctor”. Many of those in the audience who work in the NHS, especially at the free bus pass end of the spectrum, are used to being regulated, inspected, managed, audited, and criticised on a regular basis, so his message was distinctly uplifting. Hawking then spoke about the future of the NHS, citing increased commercialisation and privatisation, and his fear that we were drifting towards an American style marketisation, in which only those with insurance get care. The same concerns had surfaced earlier in the day, and Sarah Wollaston had given a robust rebuttal of the latter, but the time for debate was over, instead people just wanted the show to go on.

And then the moment for which the TV crews had been waiting for, alerted by The Guardian’s publication of Hawking’s speech that morning. He criticised the secretary of state for health, Jeremy Hunt, over the so called “weekend effect,” accusing Hunt of “cherry picking” the evidence to support one side of the case.

People say that politicians are thick skinned, and often they are. But not always, they are human as well. And sometimes when you prick them, they bleed. But it was probably unwise for Hunt to enter the debate, especially via the 140 character limit of Twitter. He was entitled to defend himself and the government’s record, and like any scientist Hawking would not expect to be above criticism. But now the army of journalists had what they had come for—“Hawking versus Hunt.” As one is a national treasure and the other is a politician, it was unlikely to end well for the latter. Afterwards I did some media interviews saying that we had hosted the meeting to start a debate on a topic of immense importance, and that this was the beginning, not the end of the matter. But as I refused to be drawn into the “are you with Hunt or Hawking?” debate, all of the interviews ended up on the cutting room floor. Except one. Advice for when you have something you want to say, but the media don’t want to hear—go live.

In the end it is a pity that anyone who did not attend the day will imagine it was just about Hunt versus Hawking. It wasn’t. The “weekend effect” had not surfaced during the day itself, and was something of a distraction from the main themes—accountability, integration, competition, staffing, and above all, funding. I continue to believe that in the end much of this effect will be due to residual confounding, which is extremely hard to control for. I also don’t believe that it is the most pressing issue we face. If Hawking had ended his speech half way, Mr Hunt would no doubt have been on his feet alongside the audience—it was only the second time I have seen a standing ovation at a medical conference. And likewise, Hawking himself acknowledged that he had found hospitals to be slower at the weekend, and that it was entirely legitimate to look in depth at this issue, although of course he did strongly disagree with how that had been taken forward.

Twitter row aside, there were two things to celebrate. Firstly, the fact that the majority of those attending were far younger than me, and had more passion, let alone debating skills, than I recall myself and most of my friends had at the same age. Secondly, the extraordinary Stephen Hawking. That the NHS has saved his life is indisputable, and it was right and proper for him to give his thanks to the organisation and its staff. The cheers at the end were for two things—that he had survived, and that many of us were part of the organisation that had saved him. We were all indeed star struck.

It was quite a day. I started as President of the Royal Society of Medicine four weeks ago, just a few days after stepping down as President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. I said I was looking forward to a quiet start to the new role—and that I intended to spend a bit of time getting back on my bike, going to the Oval, and catching up on a social and family life that had played second fiddle for the past three years. The staff assured me that would be fine, and that there was “nothing much in the diary, just one event that you need to chair, but that won’t be a problem.” Mystic Meg they are not.

Simon Wessely is Regius Professor of Psychiatry, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neurosciences, King’s College London. He has just taken over as President of the Royal Society of Medicine.

Competing interests: None declared.