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Friday, March 16, 2018

I would not have survived: Stephen Hawking lived long life thanks to NHS

Stephen Hawking was a longtime champion of the NHS, but it was a glaring slip in the media that provoked one of his more memorable interventions. As the Obama administration sought to reform the US healthcare system in 2009, the US Investor’s Business Daily argued that Stephen Hawking “wouldn’t have a chance in the UK, where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless”.

It was duly pointed out that Hawking was not only born and educated in England, but received more care than most from the nation’s health service. “I wouldn’t be here today if it were not for the NHS,” Hawking told the Guardian at the time. “I have received a large amount of high-quality treatment without which I would not have survived.”

A very small percentage of people with motor neurone disease live for decades after their diagnosis. Hawking was one of those rare outliers: his disease progressed rapidly at first and then slowed dramatically. But it was the NHS, rather than medical good luck, which saved his life, notably with a tracheotomy in 1985, though the NHS kept him alive many times later too, in particular over the winters when he was vulnerable to respiratory infections.

A life in science: Stephen Hawking
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Hawking’s robust defence of the NHS set the tone for the row to come. When the NHS was plunged into crisis amid plans to privatise the service, Hawking lashed out at the politicians he held responsible in a 2017 speech at the Royal Society of Medicine. He blamed ministers for funding cuts, pay caps and weakening the service through privatisation. He saw it all leading to a “US-style insurance system”.

He singled out Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, for particular criticism. In arguing for a seven-day NHS, Hunt claimed that 11,000 patients a year died because of understaffing of hospitals at weekends. Hawking pointed out that of the eight studies Hunt had cited, four were not peer reviewed, and that 13 more that Hunt had failed to mention contradicted the view.

“Speaking as a scientist, cherrypicking evidence is unacceptable,” Hawking said. When public figures abuse scientific argument, citing some studies but suppressing others, to justify policies that they want to implement for other reasons, it debases scientific culture.


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