I read a short article by Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the NHS federation, in the current Wired magazine (July-August 2023). This is an unashamed abridgement of that fine article.
Taylor points out that the human species is better at developing technology than thinking through its consequences. He sees these issue for the NHS:
- A revolution in diagnostics. This really good thing– catching disease early– depends a lot on how willing we are continuously to monitor our health. This is not so simple. Already there are harmless incursions in my life. Under my bed is a device that downloads my pacemaker data and sends it to my hospital in London. One time when I was developing symptoms, they asked for a download, then called me in, then re-timed the pacemaker and fixed the problem: really nice. On the other hand, when I was in hospital recently, nurses were taking observations several times a day. My observations are problematic and sometimes set alarms off. At least twice they sent a more senior nurse to redo the observations as they didn’t believe what a junior nurse had recorded. These constant readings do no good whatsoever to how I feel about myself. They are stressful and discouraging. Heaven forbid that I should have a thing on my wrist that did this to me all the time.
- The fact that diagnostics are usually probablistic, not black-and-white. In any case, diagnostics don’t help as much you’d like. If you might develop cancer, or might not, but will develop side effects to treatment, whaddya do?
- Inequality. Matthew Taylor points out that technology empowers people, but usually it is only some people, and inequality increases given that other people, already disadvantaged, don’t benefit. (This actually is a slightly curious argument when things are on average getting better, but let it pass.)
Finally he talks about care. He makes some fascinating observations: ‘Medicine is technocratic and scientific; care is human and relational‘. Medical expertise is sort-of expected by us patients; care is what makes the difference to how we feel about our treatment. That is very true in my experience.
Medicine is technocratic and scientific; care is human and relational
He points out this issue is especially important in end-of-life care. End of life treatment is usually the most expensive medical phase in a person’s life, but still ‘a lot of people don’t get the end of life care they want. They might receive expensive care, when they would rather have cheaper care that’s more humane, at home, with loved ones.‘ This is fascinating. Having watched friends die both in government hospitals and in our local (charitably run) hospice, I know which of the two I would choose. Give me the lovely hospice every time.
Perhaps a contribution that people of Christian faith can offer in their last days is choosing not to have every possible intervention to keep us hanging on, but to decide our time’s up, go home, or to a hospice, to face the end of life in peace? It is oddly the opposite of euthanasia, realizing our time has come and accepting it. Interesting.