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Is 70 a bit late for learning how to read ?

Just in case you missed it between the headlines about beating Panama and ghosts of penalties past: The NHS is finally reached its 70th birthday. There is a lot of noise on achievements and some notes on the roots in a philosophy originating from miners working in Wales. The Tredegar Medical Aid Society became the template for mutual support between those who can provide and those who require help: BBC Wales has produced a program where the poet Owen Sheers lends word to Michael Sheen in a most moving tribute to what this service actually means to people.

A few things happen when you get to 70: You get a lot of cards, some flowers, well wishes for the retirement, some are getting on a bit, arthritis is setting in, the pace slows down. 70 is an opportunity to learn a new hobby: something that you haven’t got around to previously due to lack of time or money. Something that you always thought would be real fun and add value to your life but never got around to.

Jeremy Hunt has this week made an important announcement: The NHS is going to learn how to read!!!! Well, strictly speaking it is not the NHS: it is the patients! Following on from the example set by Sweden, Estonia or Kayser Permanente NHS patients will get access to the records that their GP keeps about them. Patients will be able to see the list of medication that they are taking, some of their notes and maybe their next appointment.

Compared to what your bank offers you in terms of functionality is might still seem modest but it is probably the equivalent of learning how to read. It is not the same as writing. But that might some soon. Would it not be nice if you could send your GP a little note: ‘How are you – hope you are doing ok? Just noticed that the Statin that is on my regular medication is not the one that we talked about the other day. Appreciate that you are having a busy day. All the Best, Yours.’ Or you could let them know that your gall-bladder has been removed on your last trip to London when you had an emergency admission and that you don’t need the local ultra-sound for it anymore. Would save the poor women or man a lot of work.

What books should we recommend for the NHS to practice the reading: something easy? Light? Maybe the declaration of rights? Or would it be worth starting with a bit of anatomy or pharmacology for beginners. That would allow it to really understand what is going on during surgeries and in clinics.

One of the things that worries me is the eyesight. It is not great at 50, by 70 it is starting to get a bit worse, and if we want the NHS to learn how to write we might have to speed-up a bit. Otherwise Mr Hunt might not get a card back to his 70s.

Nevertheless learning how to read is key: Hans Rosling makes the point on the impact of education especially of education of women in his book Factfulness (watch his video on the ‘Magic Washing machine‘). Being able to read and read the law, the bible, other books meant that abuse from those ‘in the know’ could finally be challenged.

The South Wales miners did not just collaborate about health care: they sponsored research (with the Llandough Fries on Pneumoconiosis an eloquent witness of their commitment) and they were passionate advocates of learning and founded Miner’s Institutes and Libraries. Most of these became obsolete as the standard of education for everybody spread further.

As the NHS is learning to read we can look forward. Once this becomes the norm  we can see how it could learn how to write. And here is today’s plug: On Tuesday Mandy Odell, Helen Haskell and myself will talk about ‘How patients can drive safety’ in hospital at the Patient Safety Congress. And we might talk about what patient could add to their records already today.

So what do we want for the NHS’s 71st birthday? The ability for patients to write into their own record? And what are the key barriers to achieve this: technology, policy, patients, professionals? Or simpler: what could we achieve by 2019?

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