Sunday, June 16, 2013
"Call the Midwife": If Britain could afford to create a National Health Service after WWII, we can now!
The main argument against not cutting (not to mention expanding) social services, including health care, for the most needy, is that we “cannot afford it”. This is the argument of the governors and legislatures in states that have refused to expand Medicaid, despite clear and convincing evidence that it will cost states much more to not do so (see Medicaid expansion will leave out many of the poorest: What is wrong with this picture?, May 26, 2013). This is portrayed in a very funny – except it’s really not -- “Daily Show” segment, cited by Dr. Allen Perkins in his blog, “Training Family Doctors”, Medicaid Expansion by the Numbers. Not being able to “afford” it is the mantra not only in the US, but also across Europe as those austerity hawks have been cutting off their people’s noses – and their election chances – in thrall to a false god.
So it was very interesting for me to watch the first episode of the British (BBC One) television series (now in its second season) “Call the Midwife”. Set in a poverty-stricken area of East London in 1957, midwives pedal their bicycles around the crowds of people and rubble that still covers the streets more than a decade after the end of World War II to attend topregnant women in their homes, delivering prenatal care and babies and even caring for the babies afterward. It is a not a beautiful scenario; the young midwife, Jenny Lee (based on the real life midwife Jennifer Worth, whose memoirs form the basis for the series and who died in 2011) has never seen such poverty, such crowding, such filth, so many children. It is the height of the “baby boom”, attributed initially to returning GIs who had to wait to start their families, but continuing with no end in sight; the women portrayed are having their fourth or fifth baby in their early 20s and many far more. In fact, of course, the end of this “boom” was not the aging out of the reproductive population but the introduction of effective and widely available contraception (especially birth control pills) in the 1960s.
The midwives, all nurses and many Anglican nuns, set up clinics in a gym in the interval between the pensioners’ breakfast and the evening dance classes, as well as attending women at home. They practice an obstetrics that is quaintly anachronistic, both in its tools (the wooden “fetoscope” to amplify the fetus’ heart sounds, and the glass rectal tube), and in practice (shaving the pubic area and administering enemas – “high, hot, and a helluva lot!”) but they provide much safer pregnancies and deliveries than had ever been available to this population in the past. At one point, a woman in her 23rd (!!) pregnancy (already with 24 children, because of two sets of twins) goes into premature labor and the midwife is there to deliver what seems to be a stillbirth and begin care for the hemorrhaging mother while awaiting the arrival of the “obstetrics flying squad” with its ambulance, obstetrician, and pediatrician to continue to care, including blood transfusion in the home. When, miraculously, the baby comes to life, the mother refuses to send it to the hospital, feeding it milk with a dropper. The senior midwife tells Jenny that “we don’t ever care for these babies anymore; in the old days they died; now they go to the hospital.” When asked what they will do, she tells her they will visit three times a day until the baby is stable, and then at least once a day thereafter. In the home.
It is a dramatic and engaging story, but what fascinates me is that these services were available to these poor women. Home visits for prenatal care and delivery. Visits from nurses three times a day. An obstetrics “flying squad” to come to the homes of women who would otherwise die in childbirth. Where did the money for these services come from? Who paid these midwives, and these flying squad doctors? Well, the National Health Service (NHS). The NHS, established after the war, in 1948, to provide health care to all people in the UK. Not established at a time of prosperity, when we could “afford” it, but right after World War II, with both the nation’s economy and its literal infrastructure in shambles, with the piles of rubble still on the streets of London in 1957, 15 years after the Blitz. The National Health Service was not founded as a gesture of magnanimity from the wealthy, but as but as an explicit and well-thought out policy to provide one of the most basic of needs, health care, to all of the British people even though there was not much money; it was seen as a priority. In the second episode of "Call the Midwife", a woman who has lost 4 babies because of a pelvis contracted from rickets (vitamin D deficiency in childhood) is delivered of a healthy baby by Caesarean section. Rickets itself, the senior midwife says, is a disease of poverty and malnutrition eliminated by the NHS.
From the time I went to college and met upper-middle-class people, through my career as a doctor when I know lots of them, I have heard “horror stories” about the NHS, about the waits for things “we” never have to wait for, like elective surgeries. “My cousin says”, or “the people we had visiting from England told us”. But it was always apparent to me that this was a skewed group; the folks visiting from Britain on holiday were not the poor, were not the Welsh coalminers who had never had health care before. It is hard, I guess, when you have always been at the front of the queue, when the queue has always been so short for you that you didn’t even know there was one, to have to take your place in it; to wait in line with the hoi polloi. But ask those who never had had care, ask the poor, ask the women having babies in the Docklands.
My point here is not to romanticize poverty, or to suggest that things have always been perfect with the British NHS. It is, rather, to say that the provision of basic health care to all people is not and never has been a question of economics, it has always been a question of will. We can afford do it; indeed we cannot afford not to. Not only is it a “good investment”, it is essential humanity. Paul Krugman calls the group of health care expansion opponents “The Spite Club”, (June 7, 2013), arguing convincingly that their opposition is ideological, not fiscal. It is doubly sad to see this ideology acting in Europe, cutting the social safety net that has been in place there for decades.
When you think about what we can “afford” in health care, think about midwives making home visits to premature infants three times a day in the poorest areas of London in 1957. The expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) may not be the best vehicle to bring care to the poorest (I still argue for a single-payer, Medicare-for-all, system), but opposing it is not fiscally responsible; it is both fiscally and morally reprehensible.