The NHS at 70

“Miss Polly had a dolly who was sick, sick, sick.
So she phoned for the doctor to come quick, quick, quick.
The doctor came with his bag and his hat,
And knocked at the door with a rat-a-tat-tat.

He looked at the dolly and shook his head,
And said “Miss Polly put her straight to bed.
He wrote a paper for a pill, pill, pill.
I’ll be back in the morning with my bill, bill, bill.”

Just as a doctor presenting a patient with a bill was an alien concept when we sang this nursery rhyme with our daughters twenty years ago, so, when my parents were children eighty years ago, a free National Health Service would have been an equally mystifying idea.

As I continue to transcribe my Granny’s diaries (currently working on 1939) I realise that my Mum and her sister were frequently ill enough to be kept off school, with colds, coughs and fevers.  A few years before the diaries start, my aunt had been very seriously ill with Scarlet Fever, and had been in hospital for some time.  Family visits were not allowed and Granny had to check lists posted up to see if she was still on the danger list.  This of course was in the days before antibiotics.  There were regular trips to the doctor, but mostly the prescriptions given seem to have been for bottles of ‘tonic’.  In the 1938 diary there are 16 references to visiting the doctor and being prescribed a bottle of tonic!

All this had to be paid for, of course.  I can also see from the diaries that my grandparents made regular payments into a health insurance scheme.  Trips to collect a ‘form’ were no doubt in order to reclaim the money for the medical visits.

Viewing this with 21st century eyes I am quite surprised at the apparent availability of the doctor – visits to the doctor were often made in the early evening and he came out to visit the family when the illness was more serious.  My Mum remembers him as a kindly man.  Nowadays home visits seem to be pretty much a thing of the past.

That the NHS still endures 70 years after its launch by Aneurin Bevan is definitely a cause for celebration, still providing a cradle to grave ‘free at point of delivery’ service.  I may complain about the cost of my prescriptions, but I am hugely thankful that even the infectious diseases of my own childhood such as measles and mumps had been largely dealt with by the time I had my own children due to the progress with immunisation.

In the current British Heart Foundation magazine Professor Jane Dacre, President of the Royal College of Physicians, is quoted as saying “when the NHS first started, people were dying quickly of a single disease:  now they are living longer with multiple diseases”.  It is dealing with the long-term conditions, many associated with ageing, which currently challenges the service.

The NHS will certainly have to evolve in order to survive, but I for one would not wish to see a move to a system where a two-tier treatment service was offered – speedier if you had the money to pay.

My grandparents certainly didn’t have a lot of money, but they obviously made a priority of saving to pay for medical bills.  How they must have celebrated when the NHS was born!

Happy birthday NHS.