I was sat having lunch yesterday and couldn’t help but overhear yet another junior colleague disclose she was having meetings with her supervisors about resigning from her post as a doctor. She had had enough and concluded that medicine was no longer for her. It’s a story I keep hearing this winter but, seen in the context of a healthcare system in daily crisis, it’s not hard to empathise with her. The worrying thing is that before this last year I had barely heard of anyone quitting medicine, certainly not before they had completed their training.
The NHS is in deep trouble. As a British citizen it’s deeply worrying. As a doctor it’s seriously depressing. Our morale as a profession seems to be at an all-time low. But as a Christian? Thankfully, as a Christian there is always hope.
At the root of the current crisis is one inescapable fact: the NHS is not sustainable under current funding models. We are living longer than ever before, we are living with more severe and more complex chronic illnesses for greater periods of our lives and – as a consequence of our increasingly consumeristic culture – we have increasing expectations of our healthcare provision. This makes the cost of healthcare much more expensive than it has ever been before. Add in the fact that there are lots of excellent but hideously expensive new drugs and technologies doctors can use and you have something of a funding crisis.
I don’t want to be political about things here, but suffice to say that unless this underlying problem is addressed the NHS is going to topple over. The government is moving towards a ‘seven-day NHS’ (whatever that means) and trying to establish 12 hours a day, 7 days a week access to GPs – and these may or may not be good moves. But, good or bad, they aren’t going to resolve the underlying problem; with these changes staff are simply being reallocated to different working hours. These plans are not going to conjure up more GP appointments or hospital beds and it’s these that we’re lacking.
There is talk about the NHS doing more with less, but the UK already spends less on healthcare than most other developed nations. That’s not to say savings can’t be made – for instance, why is the NHS the only organisation in the world to still rely on fax machines! – but looking at the crises we are experiencing this winter, it’s not hard to conclude that we have now reached tipping point. We simply don’t have enough resources, be it staff, beds or funding for treatments.
And that is why this crisis in healthcare is both worrying and depressing. Either people start paying for their healthcare, access to the NHS is rationed or the government agrees to throw more money at the NHS – which really means either raising taxes or cutting funds from elsewhere. At some point in the near future we are going to have a difficult conversation about which of these options we take as a society. Sounds a bit bleak, no?
Well, I also said there was hope too. As a Christian in healthcare I try to remind myself of Jesus’ command in Matthew 25:40 every day: “Whatever you did for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me.”
For me personally, every encounter with a patient is a chance to minister to Jesus himself. Every consultation is an opportunity to establish God’s kingdom and work for restoration in the life of another person. Every day is a chance to minister God’s wholeness to someone in need.
And as an organisation, the NHS is one of the greatest examples of God’s kingdom that the British people have ever instituted. Whatever your views on it, the unavoidable fact is that the NHS looks after the poorest, the most vulnerable and the isolated. It works towards restoring people to wholeness, regardless of what they have done or what they can afford. At its heart, the NHS is an example of Jesus’ upside down kingdom in action: your status in the world is meaningless in a GP’s waiting room or a hospital bed. It doesn’t get you seen any quicker or afford you better treatment. For all its flaws, at its heart the NHS is a beautiful example of some of the key values of God’s kingdom.
The problem is, I’m afraid I don’t have easy answers for the crises the NHS is facing – the simple fact is there aren’t any. I can’t suddenly make healthcare affordable or decide how we move forwards in funding the NHS. But what I and others like me can do is work for restoration and wholeness with every patient that I meet. As a Christian in healthcare I can’t mend the whole system, but I can help mend people, one at a time. This is something that we are all called to as citizens of God’s kingdom.
It’s this that gives me hope, and I pray you agree that it’s worth fighting for.