People's History of the NHS

  • 01
  • AUG

Writing the history of YOUR NHS: Café Scientifique, Leamington Spa

by Roberta Bivins

After a fantastic evening discussing the history of medical research in the NHS with the members of Leamington Spa’s Café Scientifique, graciously moderated by Jan Gillet, I was delighted to take home a great big pile of responses to all three of our NHS surveys. Many thanks to all of you from the Café who kindly shared your thoughts, memories, opinions and suggestions. As promised, this is your chance to read the results of your efforts, and for me to say a little more about what we have learned from your input.

As you’ll recall, we gave you three different ways to tell us about what the NHS means to you, and what WE should be doing as we write its history together. The first ‘quiz’ – really more like a survey – asked you to tell us what the NHS meant to you. Of the 10 answer options, ranging from ‘I’ve never thought about it’ to ‘I am proud of the NHS’ to ‘The NHS is a waste of money’, you overwhelmingly preferred ‘It means a lot to know it is there’. 27 of you completed this survey and 25 of you selected this answer among your options. The second most popular answer was ‘I am proud of the NHS’ (18); the third choice was ‘The NHS is a safety net’ (12). Not one of you thought that the NHS was a waste of money, and happily the NHS has also never let any of you down. This is a pretty overwhelming show of support for the NHS, so it was interesting that your comments and answers to the ‘Other’ option were a bit more nuanced. Several of you wrote that the NHS needed to change: ‘Sadly it suffers from being a massive bureaucracy’, one of you commented; another added, ‘Needs re-organising’ and several of you worried about ‘waste’ in the system itself. Yet for others, the NHS was literally a life-saver, and a number of respondents commented on the services as a tool for social justice: ‘the NHS is for rich and poor alike’, you told us, and ‘It is a symbol of solidarity and egalitarianism’. In relation to Britain, you saw the NHS as signifying ‘a country where people care for each other’, even if it was ‘not always well run for pts. or staff’. Finally, several of you looked back to Britain’s past to qualify your views of the NHS today: one respondent wrote: ‘It is the sole survivor of the postwar political consensus’, while another noted how much great-grandparents and relatives had suffered before the NHS was available.


The second survey asked you to look at a set of pictures (you can find them enlarged and in colour here!) and choose the one that best symbolized the NHS to you. Here again, for the 31 of you who completed the survey, one answer came out as a clear favourite, that of a General Practitioner taking a patient’s blood pressure (12). If that was the picture you chose, we would LOVE you to tell us more about what that image means to you (you can comment below, or get in touch at we know that it could represent the idea of the NHS as providing care, and even preventive care, or could refer to the fact that GPs and GP surgeries provide as much as 90% of NHS care, on a fraction (8-10%) of the NHS budget, or it could be that this is the face of the NHS that you yourself experience. But as the numbers suggest, lots of other images were also popular: 8 of you selected the poster ‘What the NHS means to you’, and 4 the ‘broken NHS’ logo. 3 chose our lovely ‘Born in the NHS’ baby, Stanley. And one brave soul took the opportunity to describe a different view of the NHS on the reverse, writing that the NHS was a complex system of interconnections, which is what I believe is its failing. It’s full of good intentions but is too complex for civil servants to manage. It should be privatised.’ We may have to add more pictures to really capture how the NHS looks from your many perspectives! Feel free to suggest some to us below!

 Finally, we asked you to tell us wat we should be doing in order to capture a real ‘People’s History of the NHS’, by describing to us what it should include. Your favourite answer by far: EVERYTHING! 13 of the 29 people who completed this survey chose ‘All of the above’. One of you asked ‘Why do we have to choose’ – and of course you don’t! You also added some more great options to our list. We need to look back further, to see ‘how the NHS came about’, and to offer comparisons, especially to the USA. We need to explore how the NHS connects to our society, and help to explain some of its failings: ‘postcode lotteries’ and ‘waiting lists’ in particular. The most popular answer other than ‘all of the above’ urged us to include ‘patients’ stories about the NHS’ (11 of you felt this was the most important) and ‘stories about working in the NHS’ (4). And 6 of you also wanted ‘expert commentaries’ to be part of the history, and felt they would be most important. We will definitely get cracking on that – but in the meantime, it’s your turn: tell us your stories! You can add them as comments below any of the content on this website, or we’d love you to join our team as members, to help guide the project and share your stories with us and with other members in greater depth. You can join here: we’d love to have you!

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