A personal history of the NHS

Kenneth Calman looks back over the past 60 years describing the impact that the NHS has had on him

I was born a few years before the NHS began and have been part of its progress over the past 60 years. For me, it has been part of my life, and it has saved my life. This is a personal history from someone who has been a patient, a carer, a professional and policy-maker.

My first introduction to the health service, at the age of nine, was the death of my father, aged 41, from a heart attack. He was a heavy smoker and his death occurred a few months after Richard Doll first published his key work on cigarette smoking and health. His death had a profound effect on me and, as my interest in medicine grew, it was clear that this event could have been avoided, or treated more appropriately.

Fifty-five years later, in 2008, I had an aortic valve replaced in the same hospital. I received impressive care from high-quality staff - from the surgeons, anaesthetists, nurses, dieticians and physiotherapists, and the whole, wonderful team.

What has changed in between? What would have happened to my father now? The increased range and effectiveness of treatments and diagnostic developments has been quite astonishing. In my own professional lifetime, I have been involved in transplantation, cancer therapy, palliative care and public health. In each of these areas, the outcomes for patients are now just so much better. And these are just in the fields I have been involved in. Other changes in childhood illnesses, child birth, heart disease, and mental health have been equally impressive.

The healthcare team is now well established, with the contribution of a wide range of professionals well recognised. Managing resources and making the best use of skills and expertise is now part of the ethos.

The involvement of patients and the public is critical, as I learned in my time as a professor of oncology. Patients and their families have so much to offer. We need their help.

The community-based specialties, including general practice and primary care, community child health and mental health, have been major successes. The management of the NHS has changed many times. Indeed, I have suggested that on formal occasions we might wear our campaign medals, for the reforms we have been part of: 1974, 1984, 1989 and so on. Quality issues now dominate the agenda. Patients and the public want to know what will happen to them, what the outcome will be, and how that compares to other places. The watchwords are evidence-based, outcome-focused and quality-driven. Individual choice is important, and for some, quality of life may be just as important as length of life.

One of the most significant aspects of the past 60 years has been a huge improvement in public health. Standardised mortality rates in adults have dropped from 101 in 1950 to 57 in 2005. Infant mortality has decreased over the same period from 50 per 1,000 live births to 5 per 1,000 live births. In terms of individual diseases, for example breast cancer, the outlook is now significantly better, a 34 per cent reduction in mortality since 1989, with the introduction of screening, specialisation in cancer care, and improved treatment.

We have learned that health is determined by a number of factors, including our biological make-up, our environment, lifestyle, social and economic circumstances and the quality of our health services. It could be argued that health services (where most of the money goes) are the least important in improving overall population health. Employment, poverty and educational standards are all important determinants of health that continue to present challenges.

There are three other factors that have seen very significant changes over the past 60 years: the increasing relevance of research in showing ways to improve treatment and quality of life; the education of health professionals; and ethical issues, which are now seen to be increasingly relevant.

My first introduction to the health service, at the age of nine, was the death of my father, aged 41, from a heart attack

My final point is the important development, over the past 10 years, of devolved parliaments and assemblies. This has resulted in some significant differences in the ways in which health services and public health interventions are introduced, organised and delivered. These are healthy developments but, in the future, such differences may become more significant within the UK and policy-makers will need to think through the consequences. Their effectiveness, or otherwise, will need careful analysis.

To return to what would have happened to my father in 2009. First, I like to think that he would not be smoking. Second, with the role of primary care in identifying disease at an early stage, his condition might have been picked up earlier and prevention instigated. Finally, if he had collapsed at work in 2009, he would have had a better chance of resuscitation and acute treatment.

These are just some of the changes that have occurred over 60 years, and there are more improvements to come. However, in making such changes we should not lose sight of the fundamental principles of the NHS. The NHS is precious, it too needs care.

Sir Kenneth Calman is president of the British Medical Association and is a former chief medical officer