As the National Health Service celebrates its 70th birthday, here are six simple ways you can help it survive another 70 years – from volunteering to campaigning and not missing appointments.
On 5 July 2018, the NHS celebrates its 70th birthday. In the decades since the public health service was founded in 1948, it has evolved and transformed in countless ways (when it was first established in the wake of World War Two, there was no such thing as state-funded contraception or mental healthcare, breast cancer screenings or vaccination programmes). But despite major scientific and societal changes, the NHS’s three guiding principles have remained steadfast. It meets the needs of everyone, it’s free at the point of delivery, and it’s based on need, not ability to pay.
More than half of Brits say the NHS is the thing that makes them most proud of their country, meaning that it’s more cherished than the armed forces (47%), the royal family (33%) and the BBC (22%). Yet it’s impossible to ignore the fact that, in 2018, the health service is struggling. Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has admitted that last winter’s NHS crisis was the “worst ever”, while a major report last autumn found that patients are regularly experiencing longer waits for treatment than in previous years, staff are under intense strain, and hospitals are constantly facing “severe pressures”.
Some of these pressures are down to complex factors including an ageing and growing population, rising care costs for older people and a relative lack of doctors and nurses compared to other Western countries. But government cuts are also to blame. We’re approaching the end of a decade of record underfunding, with Prime Ministers David Cameron and Theresa May both overseeing tight squeezes on NHS finances. In June, May announced an increase of £20bn a year to the NHS budget as a 70th “birthday present” – but there has been some controversy about where that money will come from and whether it will be enough to cope with rising demand.
Below, we’ve rounded up six ways you can support the NHS and help it survive another 70 years. In the words of a quote often mistakenly attributed to Nye Bevan, the health minister who oversaw the health service’s creation: “The NHS will last as long as there’s folk with faith left to fight for it.”
Pay attention to news about the NHS
As an institution, the NHS is incredibly complicated. So are many of the forces that shape it. Consequently, reading news stories or watching TV reports about funding cuts and policy changes can sometimes feel like you’re back in school, struggling through a textbook you only barely understand.
But stick with it and educate yourself as much as possible. If you opt out of staying engaged, you might miss something important – and by the time you do hear about it, it might be too late.
Write to your local MP
If you’re worried about health services in your area, the campaign group Patients4NHS recommends writing to your MP or visiting them at their surgery or at the House of Commons.
Raising concerns in this way is relatively easy and effective, particularly if you can rally a group of others to write as well. It flags to your local representative that their constituents care about the NHS – and lets them know they should make it a priority to defend public healthcare in parliament.
If you’re not sure who your local MP is, the website writetothem.com can put you in touch.
Join a campaign group
This is one of the most active ways to stay informed and up-to-date about threats to the NHS, and you’ll also make friends with others who care about it as much as you do.
There are dozens of different nationwide initiatives, from Big Up the NHS – which aims to counteract negative press about the health service – to The People’s NHS, which campaigns against privatisation. You can find a comprehensive list of different campaigns here.
Try to keep yourself healthy – but don’t be overly neurotic
We all have to turn to the NHS from time to time: that’s what it’s there for. And of course, one of life’s cruelties is that even the healthiest, fittest people can develop serious illnesses. Poor health isn’t always avoidable, as much as we might wish it was.
However, living healthily can reduce your chances of developing certain illnesses, diseases and conditions - and that’s good for both you and the NHS’s stretched resources. At its most basic level, good health means eating a balanced, nutritious diet, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep, all of which will help strengthen your immune system (so you’re more able to fight off everyday bugs like the common cold). According to the NHS, maintaining a healthy weight and eating a balanced diet that’s low in saturated fats, high in fibre and rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy can also help reduce your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke.
If you smoke, try and quit (do it for the NHS, if not for yourself!). And avoid binge drinking: in 2016, the head of NHS England warned that casualty nurses and doctors were having to provide a “hangover service” for drinkers who ended up in A&E.
It’s also vital not to make doctors’ appointments or seek emergency attention that you don’t really need. In 2016/17, more than nine million people were sent home from A&E after being given advice they could have obtained from a pharmacist or by dialling 111. Don’t put off visiting your GP or going to hospital if you’re really ill or have a genuine health concern – but if you think the problem might clear up on its own or with the help of over-the-counter medicine, give that a try first.
Don’t miss appointments or cancel at short notice
Turning up to the appointments you do make is just as important as not seeking medical attention unnecessarily. Almost eight million outpatient appointments were wasted in 2016/17 on patients who failed to turn up, costing the health service £1bn.
If you know you’re not going to be able to make an appointment, do the right thing and let your doctor know at least 24 hours in advance. It’s only polite.
If you have spare time, volunteering for the NHS is a great way of giving back to the service – and you don’t have to have any medical training to be useful. Fourteen NHS trusts across the UK have joined HelpForce, a network that connects volunteers with hospitals and other medical institutions; you can see if your local trust is a member here.
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