It’s time our physicians healed themselves of their poor image

In just over a week - on 5 July, to be precise - we shall be celebrating the 50th anniversary of one of the most revered yet severely criticised institutions in the land: the National Health Service. This is therefore the time, before we are overcome by hype, to look at its PR problem. I do so as one who, in a family ravaged by asthma and other chest conditions, came to know the value of the NHS at an early age. It instantly lifted a burden of family debt.

In just over a week - on 5 July, to be precise - we shall be

celebrating the 50th anniversary of one of the most revered yet severely

criticised institutions in the land: the National Health Service. This

is therefore the time, before we are overcome by hype, to look at its PR

problem. I do so as one who, in a family ravaged by asthma and other

chest conditions, came to know the value of the NHS at an early age. It

instantly lifted a burden of family debt.



Ever since, finance has been its principal headache. In next to no time

after its inception its architect, Aneurin Bevan bemoaned the cascade of

pills down the nation’s throat. A service free at the point of use is

always open to abuse. The NHS has been sorely abused and you can see the

next advantage to be taken of it a mile away. They call it Viagra, the

male impotence pill.



Nor does the NHS complete its half-century in good administrative nick

against the background of the emotive ’scandal’ in Bristol where 29

babies died at the hands of a medical heart team, two of whom have been

struck off, regular doubts over the rigour of various kinds of cancer

screening and allegations that British cancer treatment lags behind

other countries.



And, of course, Health Secretary Frank Dobson is in the political

doghouse as waiting lists he promised to cut, while boosting them by

secretly telling GPs to stop referring patients to private hospitals,

continue to soar.



Whether waiting lists are an adequate guide to the NHS’s performance is

another matter. It surely depends on what treatment people are waiting

for and how they feel in the interim. But taking everything into

account, I believe that the NHS, even in its grossly under-managed

pre-Thatcher days, has performed miracles. Somehow it has managed,

without bankrupting us, to keep up with a rapidly ageing population, the

infinite genius of medical scientists and such lifestyle phenomena as

abortion on demand and Aids. What’s more, the vast majority of its

customers think it’s wonderful.



If only its staff did. Their willingness to run it down in public in an

attempt to win more pay for themselves, camouflaged as a demand for more

’resources’ for an ’under-funded’ NHS, has been - and remains - the

major PR problem for the NHS. One example of it was the Daily Mirror’s

winter baby-killing season during the Tory years. Allegedly inadequate

intensive care facilities for infants used to come and go with the

seasons - and pay rounds.



How to persuade NHS staff to take justifiable pride in, rather than

umbrage over, their service is the great unsolved NHS PR mystery. And

NHS executives recognise it. To my amazement, I was once warmly

applauded when I told them so in an after-dinner speech. Happy golden

jubilee.



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