As a civilisation, humanity knows so much. To have in our arsenal an understanding of physics that includes relativity and all of its applications alongside our almost infinite artistic creativity is testament to our intelligence. These examples only scratch the surface of what we can do. So it is hugely humbling when we experience something like the Cvoid-19 pandemic.
As powerful as we are, we are still painfully fragile in the wider context – something we have a tendency to forget. It was not so long ago that we had to undergo operations without the luxury of anaesthetic and before antibiotics, we were faced with the rather uncivilised prospect of fighting infections using just our own immune systems.
Indeed, so uncivilised has the idea of being even slightly unwell become, that people now will seek medical help for a few days of cough and sore throat. The expectation for these worried well is that it is their right to expect an immediate cure. “Surely if we can do all of these marvellous things with technology, there is no disease we cannot sort out if we put our minds to it,” these people think. But these people are living in a different world, one of their own imagination. Others more prudent, sensible or experienced will realise that what we can do falls far short of this idealistic expectation.
We as a species go further. We harm ourselves willingly and then expect our medical professionals to pick up the pieces – even become angry when they can’t. Smoking, lack of exercise, poor diets – take your pick. That these things are bad for us there can be no question.
Of course one cannot wholly blame individuals for this. Capitalistic society is to blame here as much as anything. Profit and competition introduce temptation at the expense of welfare. I am not preaching socialism here – far from it. I simply point out that the drive for business to gain custom at any cost is a huge flaw in the system and in our health.
Whichever way one looks at it, we have become spoilt. Our perspectives on what we might expect from our healthcare have been shifted gradually but significantly over the last century. Only now are we being brought down to earth with a more humbling realisation; the thin facade of our supposedly advanced age has been withdrawn. There is even a name for this sort of thing – shifting baselines syndrome. It could be applied to many things. We have come to accept the nonsense and bile that comes from Donald Trump’s horrible little mouth as just the way it is these days. The baseline has shifted.
Just in the same way, many have been spoilt by the healthcare provision that they expect as a given. What we expect as a free benefit from our NHS nowadays (toe nail surgery, access to a GP to tell them about your cough, state of the art surgical procedures, cures for cancer and lifesaving emergency response within minutes) would have been the stuff of dreams for our ancestors. That the ever-expanding achievements of the last 50 years of medicine has caused the entire system to creek under its own weight is not surprising.
When I was younger, I reassured myself that if I or anyone I knew ever became unwell, it would be fine because there would always be someone somewhere that could cure whatever ailment had befallen them. My impression of medicine was that it was water-tight and so much more precise than the reality. A reality that slowly dawned on me during medical school. Much of it is guess work. Barely any treatment is 100% effective. What we don’t know far outweighs what we do know. The assumption is that there will always be a medicine to solve all problems. In a profession that revolves around trust in the doctor or nurse (a reassurance that can be therapeutic in itself) it is difficult sometimes for us to admit that we don’t have all the answers and can only do so much. Perhaps it is time we were more open with its limitations or else we make a rod for our own backs.
One might argue that what we now provide under its umbrella has gone far beyond the boundaries of what is sensible. To argue that we can effectively achieve 100% of what we aspire to medically is not possible. The issue is, the more superfluous and luxurious perks we add in, it edges out or at best blunts the core services that are most important.
At a time in which we are faced with something as dangerous and universal as Covid-19, we must heed a wake up call. The work the NHS is doing at the moment is what it is there for. Add to that health prevention, basic surgical treatments, mental health support, serious disease detection and treatment (including cancer), dignified end of life care, and social care.
Beyond the essentials, it is time for government to look at what the NHS really stands for and what it can really achieve. (Or preferably a cross party response to side step the political distractions). In an ideal world it would do everything to maximum efficiency. If a government wants to invest enough to make this possible, then great. The reality though means that the healthier a population is, the older it gets. Add to that the ever increasing scope of potential therapeutic options and one may argue that we could reach a point where a line must be drawn in how far we go in prolonging life. Should we become reliant of a system of health to such an extent (and perhaps we have already reached that point), the consequences of that system and it’s resources failing do not bear thinking about.
Governments need to look at this, decide where the line is drawn in what the NHS does and is expected to do. More importantly, they must be open about this. To back the NHS in a blind head long rush into the future, pledging vague sums of money that don’t make any sense to those in the know – none of this is helpful in any other way than to win elections. To acknowledge the need to be sensible about what is achievable and what is not seems difficult for politicians. Hence back room deals, rumours of privatisation etc. No one wants to see a privatised NHS. If the politicians are to be believed then they are included in this group, so why the cloak and daggers? The public deserve transparency and straight forward answers. Most understand that there is no definite right answer to a problem, even more so if it is explained to them. Without this, conspiracy and disquiet will breed.
Just as important as the government’s role in the NHS as it emerges from Covid-19 is the responsibility all of us have. We must shift our baselines back a hundred years – maybe more. This is urgent. Everyone must consider how we use our health service. That cough or rash that you might normally have seen your GP about – seems to have gone now doesn’t it?! That lack of exercise, my poor diet, that smoking habit – I can do something about that myself. No one else can help and we shouldn’t have to hold your hand. (Of course we do this and will continue to do so). Self care has been important during this lockdown. And yet, it shouldn’t be any more so now than any other time.
The problems with the health care system are clear. We all know about them. Covid-19 has affected us all and is scary. But perhaps it is the wakeup call that we all need.