Monday, 31 May 2010

Mass Observation – Ordinary People Tell the Story of the NHS

Since my last posting, I’ve been looking more into Mass Observation and it’s fascinating – it’s like taking a peek at our yesterdays. This new Mass Observation Archive research looks at the experiences of ordinary people and their opinions of their care over the first 60 years of the National Health Service.

Despite the numerous worries, gripes and moans down the decades, the British public has always supported the founding principle of the NHS - free, universal healthcare at the point of delivery, and funded by taxation - and it still does, say research authors Linda Lamont and Fran McCabe.

The study, '60 years of the NHS: Ordinary People Tell the Story', aims to contribute to a patients' history of the NHS by highlighting how expectations have changed over the decades and people's positive and negative experiences of the health service.

The material provides colourful and sometimes touching personal accounts of people's encounters with the NHS at three points in its history: 1949, 1997 and 2008. These accounts are taken from the Mass Observation Archive, kept at the University of Sussex, which specialises in material about everyday life in Britain. Short extracts have been chosen from among hundreds of vividly written responses to illustrate themes, such as hospital care; general practice; dental services; older people, including dementia; as well as contemporary ethical issues, such as organ donation, fertility treatment and assisted dying.

'Bring back 'Matron' and the smell of carbolic soap'

'We both dread the thought of becoming cabbages. I feel strongly that my life is mine to dispose of as and when I will.'

The NHS was launched in July 1948. Prior to that, healthcare was provided by a mixture of private, municipal and charity schemes. This led to inequalities between different regions, with many people unable to afford healthcare.

In the 1949 records, the report shows - unsurprisingly - that people were grateful for the services they had not been able to afford before the NHS began. By 1997, and increasingly in 2008, people's expectations are higher and they are more prepared to be critical when their needs are not met.

Better care for elderly patients, fear of infections caught in hospital wards, changing nursing standards and dislike of mixed wards are among the concerns raised by patients in these more recent responses.

'I cannot say how strongly I believe that the care which we inflict upon our elders will become, in history, the scandal of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.’

The report was compiled by Linda Lamont and Fran McCabe, two historians and retired NHS professionals, who are running a series of seminars about their work this year.

"The Mass Observation material gives us an absorbing and vivid perspective of the NHS going back to its birth. We should not forget that despite its problems, without the NHS many people, especially those without means, would not be alive today,” says Fran McCabe, who spent 40 years working in health and social care and holds an MA on the history of the NHS through general practice from the University. 'Over many long years there has been a definite improvement in treatments, waiting lists and patients rights. But a deterioration in cleanliness, friendliness and nutrition'

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