People's History of the NHS

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  • 05
  • JUN

Five questions about the NHS: The things we would do for the NHS

by Jack Saunders

The second question in our series looking at peoples memories for the upcoming People’s History of the NHS BBC documentary concerns the things that we do for the NHS. As you will find browsing the stories in our members’ section, people living in Britain do all sorts of things to support the service. Much of what we do is very mundane, imperceptible as a “contribution” to the health service often even to ourselves. We pay the taxes that fund the service, we vote for politicians who promise to keep the service in good working order, we make an effort not to “abuse” its services unnecessarily, we try to be helpful patients or demanding patients to push the whole system along. The NHS is so embedded in life in Britain that we are obliged on some level to do things for it.

Many go a lot further than that. Lots of people dedicate their working lives to the NHS, often specifically because they want their work to mean something, to contribute to an institution that cares for the nation’s sick. That work is challenging, not just because of the trauma that often attend health care settings, but also because the NHS can be a careless, exploitative employer, drawing deep on staff’s reserves of compassion as it demands more and more of their efforts for meagre compensation. Once there, many of the NHS’ staff go beyond the expectations of work, some spending their working life fighting for improvements in the services they deliver. Professor Dame Elizabeth Anionwu, interviewed for our BBC documentary is one example. She pushed for proper resources for people suffering with sickle cell and thalassemia.

Still others look to contribute to the NHS with their unpaid labour. The health service has always drawn on a deep well of sympathy from charities and volunteers, who raise money, donate blood, run hospital shops and sometimes provide services where the NHS lacks the time, resources or inclination. The stories shared in our MyNHS members area feature all sorts of charitable endeavours and voluntary activities. More controversially, others go into battle to save aspects of the NHS that they value. Campaigners march, sign petitions, lobby parliament, stage sit-ins and protests, sometimes to save particular hospitals or services, to demand access to new services, to demand justice for people who’ve been mistreated. Whistleblowers in the NHS have taken perhaps some of the greatest risks, endangering their jobs and reputations to expose malpractice and suffering.

How would I answer the question “What would you do for the NHS?” I suppose my starting point would be the things I have done for it. There are things I’ve done inadvertently, simply because I’m citizen of the UK. I paid tax, I voted for politicians I saw as pro-NHS. More consciously, I make an effort to be a “good health citizen” – only going to the GP or the hospital if it’s really necessary, trying to keep healthy, taking the full course of anti-biotics, that sort of thing. Although I’d have to admit there’s a fair bit of self-interest in all of that!

Then there’s the fact that I worked for the NHS for 2 years. Unbelievably, in modern Britain about 1 in 20 employees works for the NHS, so there’s a good chance you as the reader might have done this too. I was a secretary, so I filed the files, put the data in the database, emailed the emails etc. so my nurse and doctor colleagues could go do “front line care”. It certainly felt important that I do that, but they did pay me, so I not sure how far that counts either. I left and went to work on other things, less urgent things, less life and death things.

The NHS remained important to me, but my contribution felt more marginal. I was a donor card holders, a very occasional blood givers, and certainly a petition signer and a protester – on marches to save hospitals, to oppose cuts, to offer my dissent on private provision plans, strategic reorganisation plans, on target plans, or pay restraint plans, on outsourcing plans. I don’t recall that anyone ever listened. It’s hard to know if that amounts to much, if it amounts to everything that needed to be done. “What would I do for the NHS?”  I’d do what I could, what I thought might help, but worry it won’t be enough.

We would welcome your reflections on the question of ‘what you would do for the NHS’. Our sites has dozens of memories already, why not join and add yours!

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