Views & Reviews

Back to the future: healthcare before the NHS

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: (Published 24 September 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e6378
  1. Peter Davies, freelance journalist, London
  1. petergdavies{at}

Two television documentaries on UK healthcare before the NHS have eerie resonance with current moves to marketise the NHS, says Peter Davies

How much better our healthcare system would surely be if it was based on those most noble human impulses—self help, voluntary effort, and charitable giving; reinforced, perhaps, with a diversity of providers troubled by the very minimum of regulation. Such a blueprint might be vigorously advocated by the think tanks currently commanding attention in Downing Street. But of course, just such a system existed in the UK before the NHS was founded, and the ramshackle, chaotic, and disorganised services it produced left millions in terror of falling ill.

Memories of those times survive in the public consciousness and partly account for the indestructible popularity of the NHS, whatever its shortcomings. The BBC has tapped into those memories in two programmes exploring 20th century primary care and hospital development to 1948, combining contributions from professionals and patients with archive footage. “Health before the NHS” is a moving evocation of struggle against disease, poverty, and indifferent officialdom, soothingly narrated by the television doctor Robert Winston. As health policy threatens to fragment care once again, these documentaries are a timely reminder …

View Full Text

Log in

Log in through your institution


* For online subscription