Religion and healthcare: why the NHS provokes holy arguments

The Hospice Comtesse, just north of the historic centre of Lille, opened in 1245, more than seven centuries before the formation of the NHS. It treated the sick for free, using income from its estates and donors, until 1796 when post-revolution reforms turned it into a hospice, a role it performed until 1939. As a tour of the buildings, now a museum, makes obvious, it was an explicitly Christian institution, with a chapel adjoining its huge dormitory ward and its healthcare provided by nuns.

The historic links between religion and healthcare are evident in language: today’s nurses, who are still called sisters and sometimes angels, are engaged in the work of saving the sick. But it seems that healthcare also now serves as a substitute for religion for many. It is the location of almost all births, which in most cases are no longer marked by a church service, and many deaths, which once might have been attended by a priest. It performs ‘miracles’ – cures which can be explained through science, but which would have appeared miraculous to the Hospice Comtesse’s mediaeval patients, and in many cases retain that aura today (think of the separations of conjoined twins).

It includes ritualistic activities such as the provision of medicines (which sometimes work even if they are only placebos) and is the recipient of charity, even if the manifestation has changed from an ex-voto painting (such as those shown above, on display at the Hospice Comtesse) to a marathon runner’s sponsorship, as a way to give thanks for a cure, or to remember one who was not.

It is sometimes said that shopping has replaced Christianity in national life, but it seems more accurate to agree with former Conservative chancellor Nigel Lawson that the NHS is the closest thing Britain has to a national religion. It has credos, initially expressed within William Beveridge’s aim of fighting the five evils of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness in his wartime report that recommended the NHS and the rest of the welfare state. Despite the fact that (with an echo of the King James Bible’s modern renderings) it is now less elegantly expressed as “healthcare free at the point of delivery”, it is still a powerful and simple belief: if I am sick, I shall be cared for.

Perhaps this helps explain the fury triggered by any changes to the NHS: they are a kind of blasphemy. Politicians of all parties carry out reforms of public services. These are often opposed by those working in those services, but rarely does this opposition spread to any great extent to the general public. Britain’s rail system has many friends and critics beyond its own workforce and a few of its stations are sometimes thought of as secular cathedrals, but despite the fundamental and often botched reforms the rail industry has suffered over the last two decades, transport secretaries do not tend to suffer quite as much as health secretaries do.

Healthcare is a difficult policy area, with fast-rising costs and expectations leading to a need for reforms. But while the NHS is treated by many as a kind of religion, that will be particularly tricky. All kinds of departments have ministers, but the health ones of all parties get more than their fair share of accusations of heresy.

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One Response to Religion and healthcare: why the NHS provokes holy arguments

  1. Toby says:

    Superb read….perhaps Jesus and the disciples were ‘merely’ advanced practitioners of care. But to your wider point re the NHS and religion…if things are to save the demands of today then they need to adapt if they are going to survive tomorrow. This is the same as religion. For years there have been wars, riots and attacks all in the name of religion and I suspect they will continue but what we have witnessed as a result is religion and its ability to adapt. It is this constant evolution of religion that guarantees its survival. The same parallel can be drawn with the NHS. If that is to survive tomorrow, then it needs to evolve to the demands of today- an ageing population, a larger population and competition from alternative care providers. Whilst I might question many things that our government has done, or plans to do, I am entirely in support of the overwhelming aims of what they want to do with the NHS. It needs to survive, absolutely it does, but not in its current guise of far too many episodes of incompetence, negligence and inefficiencies – which I have recently been ‘privvy’ to and I honestly do not like saying that about something that I am a strong supporter of. There are of course far greater numbers of successes than failures, but as contributors to our welfare system via taxes paid any instant of poor care is unacceptable to any person is totally unacceptable and measures need to be put in place to prevent them from happening again. If that means making the system more efficient and competitive, then I am all for it. Amen.

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