At the beginning of its 70th year the NHS has hardly got off to the happiest of birthdays what with 12 hour waits to be seen at A&E departments, patients yet again lying on trolleys in corridors, cancelled elective surgery and staff leaving their jobs in alarming numbers because of low morale. And to that add the news also that we have pretty mediocre cancer survival rates compared with other western countries.
As Frank Field the long serving Labour MP noted last year the pressure on the NHS is being caused by “a growing elderly population that makes disproportionate health and social care demands, and an abundance of advances in ever-more expensive medical technology that will take an ever-greater toll on NHS budgets.”
Despite the problems there is much of which to be proud. The Washington based Commonwealth Fund which is respected around the world for its analysis of the performance of different countries' health systems reported in 2017 that in the United Kingdom, 7 percent of people with lower incomes and 4 percent with higher incomes reported that costs prevented them from getting needed health care. In the USA, which spends 17% of its GDP on healthcare, 44 percent of lower income and 26 percent of higher income people reported financial barriers to care. And patients (I have recently been one) frequently appreciate the dedication and expertise of those who treat them often in difficult circumstances.
Nonetheless we have an under-funded and overused system in need of reformation and there isn't a solution that doesn't involve extra resources. France and Germany spend 11.5% of their GDP on healthcare while the UK spends 9.8%. In both these countries people pay into compulsory health insurance. While many people in UK would be prepared to pay a little more in taxation, other models of funding deserve consideration.
Former Tory Chancellor Nigel Lawson’s assertion that “the NHS is the closest thing the English people have to a religion” goes some way towards explaining the protests when different models of funding are suggested. Protests are understandable because the concept of “free” healthcare at the point of use has been instilled into us for so long that most of us take it for granted. Differing political viewpoints lead to heated exchanges about the best model for funding and as an ordinary full time NHS “jobbing” consultant I always found it hard to know who is right.
Changes of government inevitably led to ideologically driven upheaval, which was unsettling and frustrating. There must be cross party dialogue, at very least about things that are common ground between people from different political traditions. Structural changes should also be considered, though what is required may differ in the different parts of the UK.
We also need to take more responsibility for our own healthcare. Free healthcare contributes to carelessness with the NHS and increasingly so it seems. In the last financial year patients failed to turn up for some 7.9 million appointments, a 50% increase in numbers in a decade - a terrible waste of a precious resource.
God's people can show themselves different in this area. The indulgence, lack of self-control and waste in developed countries, while many people are starving, is profoundly wrong. God gave us intricately designed machines to live in and they require the right fuel and maintenance. Much of our health is up to us. The benefits of what is being called “social prescribing” in the NHS are increasingly clear. Rather than 'a pill for every ill', social prescribing is helping certain people get better and stay healthy. GP's are now saying that the best help they offer some patients is connecting them with local sports, arts and voluntary organisations.
The Bible does not address healthcare directly and says nothing about political issues related to modern healthcare. But it is definitely pro health and encourages us to take care of our bodies. Healthcare is about caring for our bodies, our minds, and our emotions—the whole person—so we can reach our maximum abilities, whatever those may be.
God created us as body, soul, and spirit and we must not ignore the body’s health. Healthcare, in whatever form it takes, is biblical and important, as well. Christians as individuals and in their communities should be involved with preventative healthcare and in encouraging respectful debate about healthcare provision.
Noel McCune is a retired Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist.
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.