Ask not what the NHS can do for us … but what we can do for the NHS

We love the National Health Service. It’s a pure, unconditional love. Most of us have experience of great treatment within the NHS, and terrible treatment too, yet our love for the institution seldom wavers. When things go well, we praise the NHS, but when things go badly, we tend to blame individual hospitals, doctors, or whole groups of doctors such as GPs – who are getting a disgraceful kicking just now. But it’s never the NHS’s fault.

We venerate the NHS and howl at governments to fund it better. But, as individuals, what do we do to help this institution we profess to love so well? I love my dog, so I feed and walk him. I love my football team, so I follow them everywhere. But what about the NHS? Yes, I pay my taxes and, during the pandemic, applauded in the street. Why, such was the vigour of my saucepan-banging that I broke my favourite wooden spoon. I’ve also, on occasion, slotted coins into charity tins. But now I’m wondering what else it is we should be doing. In other words, I ask not what the NHS can do for us, but what we can do for the NHS.

This thought came to me while I was speaking to medics involved in the Covid vaccine trial I’m taking part in. I signed up in the first place, I must admit, because it seemed like a shortcut to getting vaccinated, even if I sold it to myself and others as an act of great selflessness. The jabs and tests for my trials were at the Chelsea and Westminster hospital in south-west London. Like, I suspect, many people, the feeling I’d had about drugs trials was that they were mainly for the benefit of faceless, rapaciously commercial pharmaceutical companies. But it soon became clear to me what a huge benefit to the NHS drugs trials are. Apart from the money it brings in, there’s research suggesting that NHS trusts that participate in research have better outcomes for their patients regardless of whether the patients themselves are involved in them.

Charlie Craddock, a professor of haemato-oncology at the University of Birmingham, has been saving lives for years, working with the charity Cure Leukaemia to raise money to pay for the research nurses he needs to get the pharmaceutical companies to commission him to run trials of the cutting-edge drugs that are often the difference between life and death. “After all, this is one of the beauties of the NHS,” he says. “With more than 60 million patients we have, unlike most other countries’ healthcare systems, an amazing potential cohort to conduct all sorts of incredible research.”

Chelsea and Westminster hospital has got together with other major NHS hospitals in London to maximise these kinds of opportunities. Dr Suki Balendra is life sciences lead for this alliance and has a very clear answer when I ask her what we, as individuals, can do to help the NHS. “Every time a patient has an appointment with their healthcare professional, they should ask them about research and how they could get involved,” she says. It’s not just drug trials. “Research should be in the very fabric of the healthcare system and the patients should be as involved in threading research through the system as the healthcare professionals themselves.”

Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, has a long list of ideas on this but, along with many others, stresses how helpful it is for the NHS to have us signed up to its app, both for the advice on there and the data we can provide to help them manage our health most effectively.

OK, got it. What else can we do? It’s a question I put to every medic I could think of. Many stress the importance of volunteering. We saw the value of this in the sterling work done by tens of thousands of volunteers assisting with the vaccine rollout, but there are countless such opportunities year-in, year-out. Stuff as basic as helping people get to where they need to be in huge hospitals makes an enormous difference to the whole operation.

Samantha Batt-Rawden is an intensive care and air ambulance doctor who helps lead an organisation called NHS Million, which aims to create “a superteam of a million people who love and cherish the NHS”. Her first suggestion is the simplest: to remember NHS staff are human. “We all have feelings, emotions, our own issues.” This doesn’t seem a lot to ask. On practical matters, she implores us to get our flu and Covid vaccines; when driving, to wear seatbelts and not use our phones; not to call an ambulance unless we really need to; and to always keep our doctors’ appointments.

Interestingly, unlike most doctors I’ve spoken to, she doesn’t think there’s a great deal to be gained by asking people to look after themselves better for the greater good. “If people can’t be persuaded to change their lifestyle for their own health, I’m not sure they would do it for the NHS,” she says.

Respectfully, I wonder if she’s right on that. After all, when it comes to self-care, people have complicated feelings about themselves, certainly more complex than their visceral attachment to the NHS. I think we may owe it to the institution to try our best to be healthy, even if we feel we don’t owe it to ourselves. And, though I’m slightly in disagreement with Batt-Rawden on this, she gets the last word anyway. “The beauty of the NHS is that ultimately you owe us nothing. No matter who you are, where you’ve come from, or what illness you have, we will be there for you. But to those who do recognise how special this is, and want to give something back, please know how much we appreciate you.”

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