I am increasingly concerned by the use of the word “customer” to describe people who use the NHS and social services. I hear it often in meetings and it is, in my opinion really dangerous. It is dangerous for 2 reasons: firstly, it assumes that people “buy” services, which they do not (because our services are not and must not become based upon ability to pay); and secondly it creates a very unhelpful understanding of how we expect people to behave in relation to their own health and the health service i.e. as consumers, rather than participants.
I heard recently about a practice in Columbus, Ohio, in which before beginning an operation, each member of the team: the patient, the surgeon, the anaesthetist the nurse, the ODA and the recovery nurse all stand in a circle and agree who is responsible for which bits of the healing process. It takes into account the ‘checklist’ idea of Atul Gawande and expands it further. Each person, including the patient (except in emergency settings when they are unconscious) have some responsibility to take for the healing that is about to ensue. It is vital that the patient themself understands that they have a key role to play in their own recovery.
If people think of themselves as the ‘customer’ or we think of them that way, we can all too easliy exclude them from taking an active part in their own health journey. The NHS is not a sweet shop or a passive experience in which you have things done to you – at least it shouldn’t be. Creating a ‘customer base’ is the antithesis of a social movement for health and wellbeing and we need to stop this really unhelpful language now!
There is a step-ladder approach to thinking about engagement and participation which is really helpful. I’m not exactly sure who first drew this, so can’t give credit where it is due:
We are actively producing and encouraging a society of passivity and consumerism and we need a sizmic shift in our thinking to create a totally different approach to how we think about our health and wellbeing.
If we think of, or encourage people to think of themselves as customers of our health and social care services (and this applies across the public sector, so this could equally be written about education, the cleanliness of our streets etc) then we assign people to the bottom two rungs of the ladder as victims and consumers. It is no wonder that we are facing some of the issues we are. It has created an incredibly unhelpful and unhealthy power dynamic and has caused an enormous strain on our services.
I’m not talking uncompassionately here. I know that many people have to live with long term conditions that can be utterly debilitating and difficult to cope with on a day to day basis. What I’m talking about here is how we respond to people who live with those complexities every day. We don’t have to treat them as victims, nor as consumers. Surely, we want people at least to be able to translate what their choices are – what’s possible for me or even what is in this for me? It would be one step better for people to be able to actively participate in their own care – this can be both active and reflective. But what about people being able to shape or co-produce the kind of care they would like to see and what might their role be in this?
Co-production calls for a double accountability. What is the responsibility of the person who has a certain condition and what is the response ability of the service to work with that person or group of people around that condition/situation? It is not for us to be taking power away from people. We have to learn to work differently and to work with people.
People using the NHS and Social Services are not customers and we must stop talking about them in this way. They are active participants in their own health and social needs, who should be able to shape and co-produce the kind of services we all need to improve our health and wellbeing. This kind of approach is vital if we want to see an end of the consumer mentality and an embracing of a greater sense of corporate responsibility.
That is why I am so passionate that we take our financial difficulties and conundrums out to community conversation. It is not for those of us in positions of power to make decisions on behalf of our communities, (even though this is our statutory responsibility) because if we do, we will only deepen the victim/consumer mentality. No, we must be honest, change our language, share our problems and engage together to recognise that the future of the NHS and Social Care belongs to us all and is our shared responsibility.
In my last blog, I was exploring how some of the biggest determinants of our health and wellbeing have very little to do with healthcare at all. They are societal issues, with huge implications on how we live together. Issues like poverty, homelessness, loneliness and adverse childhood experiences are far greater drivers of health inequalities and outcomes than many of the other things we spend an inordinate amount of time and energy focusing on.
However, it is only a social movement of people, willing to face up to and do something about these kind of injustices in our society that is going to bring about real and lasting change. Our old ways of operating, in which public servants try to find the answers and ‘do things’ to communities to ‘fix’ the problems simply are not working. The change we need is only going to come from the grass roots, when communities get together, ask difficult questions, give space for really important discussion and learn to forge new ways ahead in collaboration.
Do we know how to ask good questions? Do we know how to explore complex issues? Do we know how to create the kind of spaces in which we can have really important conversations about the future we might like to co-create together, a future based on values we hold dear, like love, trust and kindness? How much more healthy and well might we all be, if we found a new way of being together, based on collaboration and cooperation? People talk about a new politics – politics is in essence about how people live together, not about how decisions are made in government. A friend and colleague of mine, Ian Dewar, is helping to host a health festival in Lancaster in a few weeks time and he is calling it – ‘The Lost Art of Living’.
The team I work with are committed to training and creating a network of people who would like to co-steward spaces in which we could host these kind of really important conversations. Our hope is that everyone in our area is able to live life more fully, in the best possible health and wellness for them. Here is an example of a training we did in Morecambe in February:
Together, we are are sharpening our skills and using these techniques in a variety of ways to help build this social movement for change in our health and wellbeing. Here are some more ways we are using it:
We are creating a community of practice, unashamedly using these techniques to help shape the cultures of our own organisations and communities and hope to further spread this practice as a method of holding space for new ideas to emerge. Taking time to connect as human beings, asking good questions and using techniques that can really help explore the issues at hand can be truly transformational. the ‘Art of Hosting’ is not a social movement in and of itself, but it helps give the tools and prepare the ground in which one can emerge and flourish. If you live in the Bay, come and co-create with us……if you don’t why not be a catalyst for change where you are?
In the months ahead, we will be offering more training and hosting conversations such as: how do we raise happy, healthy children? How do we live well? How do we work well? How do we age well? How do we die with dignity? Come and be a part of this and let us shape a better future for everyone.
Here in Morecambe Bay, we are trying to develop a strategy around Population Health – by that we mean we want to take a much broader view of the health needs of those who live in this area, ensuring that we try to tackle the disparities we see in the health of our population. In my opinion this needs a three fold approach.
Firstly, we need to get our own house in order. We know there is work
for us to do as a health system when it comes to ensuring we’re proactive with people’s health. With the resources we have available, we need to ensure that we are treating preventable conditions as well as possible and use the best evidenced-based approach to the care we are delivering. That is why, the excellent Medical Director of UHMB, Dr David Walker, with his vast experiencing in Public Health, is helping us focus on making a significant difference to preventing Strokes (CVAs – Cerebro-Vascular Accidents) across the Bay this year. We are making a concerted effort to ensure that all our patients are getting the necessary pulse checks, blood pressure checks, blood tests and appropriate medications to monitor and manage conditions which can lead to devastating consequences if left untreated or mismanaged. Within this, we are encouraging people to know more about the conditions they live with, understand them and take responsibility to ensure that they are caring for their own health.
Secondly, we are working with people across the Bay to live more healthy lives. We continue to see more and more children running a mile a day and hope that this will soon become the Morecambe Bay Mile, in which it becomes the norm for everyone who lives here to move a mile a day. Our sedentary lifestyles are hugely affecting our health and we’re wanting to encourage all business owners and leaders to ensure that staff have time to be active every day. On top of this we’re starting to work with schools around healthy eating and involved in projects with supermarkets to enable people to make more healthy choices in the face of fierce advertising. We’re also working with high schools around mental health issues and seeing many community initiatives springing up, run by the community for the community, which will improve the wellbeing of all. All of this is backed by our ‘Flourish’ work in our hospitals and ‘Let’s Work Well’ in the community, in which NHS staff are leading by example in changing the way that we work and live.
Thirdly, however, we need to dig deeper. We keep trying to put a sticky plaster over the great pus-filled abscesses that are the leading causes of ill health in our country. Traditionally we have paid much of our attention to dealing with the symptoms of ill health, and whilst thinking about the root causes, we have simply not putting anyway near enough time, energy, or resource into tackling them. The reason for this is two fold: firstly, health and social policy is directed far too much by the political cycle and the short term gains that can proven in small time windows – so we keep tackling symptoms because we can then prove how effective we are!; secondly, in truth, we don’t actually know how to tackle some of the issues and those of us in leadership roles are far too clever and proud to admit that we don’t know how to fix them and that we need to find a new way together, with the communities of which we are a part.
I was having a conversation with Cormac Russell the other day, via twitter, and he gave me this beautiful quote by Ivan Illich: “I believe it is time to state clearly that specific situations and circumstances are “sickening”, rather than that people themselves are sick. The symptoms which modern medicine attempts to treat often have little to do with the condition of our bodies; they are, rather, signals pointing to the disorders and presumptions of modern ways of working, playing and living.”
The reality is that many of the determinants of our health and especially of the health inequalities we see in our society have little to do with the availability or quality of services. No, the biggest factors affecting the health gap in this (and every) area are poverty, housing, loneliness, hopelessness and adverse childhood experiences. If we’re not careful, we end up thinking the real issues are waiting times in the ED, difficulties discharging people from hospital, breaking the 18 week target for hip and knee operations and ensuring there are enough GP appointments at weekends. We must not look at the symptoms and believe that if we tackle these surface issues then we will automatically have better health outcomes for all. Here in the Bay, we are trying to be brave enough to take off the sticky plaster and gaze into the festering wounds in our society, so that we can begin to really do some deep debridement of them and allow real healing to ensue.
That is why my team are focusing on hosting conversations that matter across our communities and seeking to co-create a social movement. Using the ‘Art of Hosting’ we are holding spaces open in which rich conversations can happen. “We don’t just want people to be more healthy and well – many people don’t even know what that means”, as an amazing woman called Gill, from the West End of Morecambe told us recently, “No, we want everyone to be able to experience life to the full, whatever that means for them”. We can’t do this simply by having good clinical strategies – we need something far more holistic and it will involve all of us. We need to start our conversations together with appreciative inquiry. What is already going well? What can we learn from here? Knowing what is good, however, is not enough – we must go further, dig deeper and get to grips with some extremely difficult issues.
When it comes to Poverty, here in Morecambe Bay, we are trying out new economies (like time banking) and having challenging conversations. The Poverty Truth Commission is causing is to really listen to those with lived experience of poverty and learn to co-create and co-commission services, rather than presuming that the ‘experts’ know best.
When it comes to homelessness, inspired by the work in Alberta Canada (https://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/find-out-how-this-canadian-city-has-eliminated-homelessness/) and the Manchester Homelessness Charter (https://charter.streetsupport.net/) – we’re beginning to explore ‘housing first’ for Morecambe Bay, but imagining what it might be like with extra support in place from a caring community like ‘The Well’ in Morecambe and Barrow (https://www.thewellcommunities.co.uk/). I’m so pleased that Dave Higham is provoking this conversation for us here and I’m excited to see where a conversation between those with lived experience of homelessness, poverty and addiction, along with some of us in the public sector, might take us. There’s a challenge to all of us in society – we like the sound of these kind of things, but not in our own backyard….our values must begin to align with our actions. Love without action is not really love.
And what about loneliness and hopelessness? More than ever, we need connection across the generations, turning off our screens and actually being together as humans. In Morecambe we are seeing the launch of the new Morecambe Fringe in September, bringing people together around Comedy and the Arts. More Music are doing incredible work with young people. There are amazing community initiatives right around the Bay. We have loads of festivals connecting people across the district. And what is the role of business here? We need businesses to think abut what kind of enterprise we could see emerge for the youth in our area. Are there more opportunities for mentoring? We have left many of our young people to boredom and with few aspirations. With the help of Stanley’s Youth Centre and the great heart of Yak Patel, we hope to host many conversations with young people to really listen to what it is we could create together to break these problems and build community and hope.
What are we together going to do about the huge issue that is child abuse? We don’t have answers, but we do have questions – and we need to keep asking them. We know that the mental and physical consequences of abuse are utterly devastating and we find it hard to talk about because it affects so many of us. But our interventions are happening too little, too late, and we are missing the vast majority of cases. Our services simply cannot cope with the volume and serious case reviews tell us the same lessons nearly every time. So what? What are we going to do differently? There are definitely things that the public services can do better – but not when our resources are being stripped. What is especially terrible about the cuts to services in our most deprived areas is that ACEs cause poverty, homelessness, isolation and ill health! As a team, we take this really seriously and will be hosting discussions in our schools and local communities about how we raise happy, healthy children. Where is help needed? We’ve become so focused on grades and outcomes in schools…..but do we teach people what to do with their anger? Do we focus enough on values? Are there enough parenting (the hardest job in the world) classes – and if so, are they hitting the mark? What do we need to do differently? We know the situations in which children are more likely to suffer – so what? Have we become so focused on getting people into work that we’ve forgotten just how important parenting is? And if we know that ACE is such a massive issue, are we really making the right choices in terms of what therapies we’re making available for those who have suffered them?
Is it the role of those of us in healthcare to get involved in these discussions? YES! It is the role of all of us in society. Together, we must reimagine the future. We all know that prevention is better than cure, but our short-termism is stopping us from finding the kind of positive solutions that will really make a difference. In face of downward pressure from hierarchical powers, it is tough to make brave decisions to invest in the future, rather than cut our way to balancing the books. But if we really care about the health and wellbeing of our communities, then we have to stop the sticking plaster approach and clean out the gangrenous wounds in our society. We have to deal with the root and not the fruit.
The IHI in Boston have proven that the joy of teams is the biggest single factor in patient satety and quality of care. Here is a 1 minute video highlighting the 5 key behaviours of CEOs, in healthcare organisations, that enable joy in their teams. If CEOs are not acting in these ways they are having a directly negative impact on patient safety and care and therefore might not be the right person for the job. #cultureofkindness #cultureofjoy #culturechange
Here are some excerpts from a speech I gave recently at Lancaster City Hall about how in a time of crisis, we can either turn on each other, or turn to each other (my friend Mike Love gave me that line!). When we turn to each other, unimagined possibilities become the fuel of hope for a better future for us all. I broke the 20 minute speech into just over 6 minutes – sorry if it’s a bit clunky, but I hope you get the gist!
My morning surgery began today with a patient of mine, who works as Health Care Assistant (or Band 3) in our local acute hospital trust. As we find across the board in the NHS right now, there are pressures in her department with under-staffing and a very high and demanding work load. She started her day in tears, telling me about the sleepless nights, but even more so about the lack of support she is feeling in her work environment. She feels unable to understand why huge fees are paid to find locum consultants, when posts are not covered, but money cannot be found for the absence of staff at her level, when the numbers are down, leading to an increased pressure and low morale.
Now, this is not a criticism of the acute trust we partner with every day, because I actually know all too well the situation here, how complex it can be and just how dedicated to caring for staff the leadership of the trust are. However, when we read in the press today about sickness absence for stress among paramedics, and if I were to detail more stories about the number of cases I am currently dealing with as a GP about stress in the workplace for ALL grades of staff in the NHS and social care setting, then we have to face up to the fact that we have a problem. Stress in the workplace and low morale in our teams is not a problem we can afford to ignore. It not only causes high sickness rates, which then increases the pressure on teams, with knock on financial implications to the system; it also causes significant compassion fatigue (i.e. staff are literally less able to care about or for their patients), because they are emotionally overwhelmed, under-resourced and therefore become more numb, disengaged and unkind and this is detrimental to patient care.
The problem is actually really complex, but it is, in my opinion, primarily cultural, and particularly affects the lower pay-grades of staff, because they feel and are in fact less able, to influence change. If we do not develop a culture of kindness towards our own teams and have a sea-change within our working environments in terms of how we care for each other, we will only see the problems go from bad to worse. So, how do we create a culture of kindness, a culture of honour, a culture of wellbeing?
I would like to suggest six things (all beginning with H – the 6Hs), which are fairly simple, but make a massive difference to how teams function and therefore the morale within those teams:
Humanity – First, we must recognise that hierarchy has the inbuilt tendency to de-humanise us. As we get higher in the pyramidal systems in which we work, we can easily lose our humility and compassion towards others as we have to cope with the greater demands from “above us” and if we’re not careful we can turn into slave drivers. Top down, controlling leadership is detrimental to good morale and stifles teams from working effectively. There is a famous, ancient parable (told in the New Testament) about an unmerciful manager, who owed a huge amount of money to his master/CEO. The CEO called him to account and threatened to fire him. However, he begged for mercy and the master cancelled his debt and gave him a fresh chance. However, this same manager then went and found all the people who owed something to him, and instead of paying forward the mercy he had received, treated his own debtors shamefully, despite their begging and pleading for mercy. When the CEO found out about this, the manager was duly fired. I wonder how often we tolerate ‘bullying’ by managers, because they ‘run a tight ship’, without calculating the cost of this style of management on our teams and the patients we serve? Changing culture is hard. Even if the CEO sets a good culture, any one of us can bring a negative influence in the area we work. We have to make a conscious choice to keep our kindness switched on. As we climb the ladder of responsibility, we must continue to act with humanity. We must also remember that it works the other way round – we can start dehumanising those in leadership positions ‘above us’, or those who work in different teams. We make terribly unfair assumptions about people all the time. A little bit of understanding, kindness and compassion goes a HUGE way in treating each other with kindness instead of suspicion.
Humility – For those in leadership, there can be a tendency to forget that when we were in in ‘lower’ positions, we often felt the same low morale and pressure from those ‘above us’. Leadership requires that we keep our love and compassion switched on towards those who we now lead. This means we must really learn to listen, and that means having the humility to recognise where we have been getting it wrong. If we are not prepared to change, then we are not really listening. It takes courage to create a culture in which we can receiving a challenge from those in our team and be able to make a change and not just use our position to squash the person who dared to speak out. It takes even more guts to admit where we have been wrong, say sorry and move forward differently.
Help – one of the very worst things that can happen in any team dynamic is when we hear the words ‘it’s not my job’. I hear it so often and it makes me sad! We must never think we are above any task – whether that is cleaning up a mess, wiping a patient’s bum or picking up some litter. We must simply help each other out. But we also need the humility to admit when we are struggling and actually ask for help. We encounter terrible and unspeakable trauma at times, or may simply be going through tough personal circumstances. Sometimes, we need the humility to recognise where we are not coping, where we are struggling, when we’re not functioning and ask for help. And when we ask for help we need to have the confidence that we will encounter the humanity of those around us to help us at our time of need.
Honour – Sometimes a situation may not be able to change, but in these situations the very worst thing leaders can do is close ranks, shut communication down and raise the levels of demand. No, vulnerability, openness and honesty, sharing the reality of the situation and communicating clearly why things cannot change currently at least allows the team to pull together and face the situation as one. However, there must be a very clear challenge here – Yanis Varoufakis puts it so well in his book “And The Weak Suffer What they Must” – we have to remember just how crippling powerlessness can be. Like my patient this morning, she has no access to the ‘powers’ or to the ‘purse strings’. She cannot up and leave, she simply can’t afford to, and so she works under huge pressure for very little pay, powerless to enact change, other than to put in place her own boundaries. A cultural shift towards a culture of kindness is to ensure that those with the least ‘honour’ are treated the most honourably. Leadership is about being able to take the hit, not self-protectionism at the cost of ones team. It is absolutely amazing just how far the words ‘Thank You’ can go, to keeping this sense of honour alive.
Health – (by health, I mean wellbeing in its widest sense) – we have to actually care for the people around us. We have developed a culture in the NHS and social care where we will do all we can to care for our patients/clients, but will break the backs of ourselves or our teams in the process, which is actually entirely self-defeating! It is impossible to care for others well, when you are feeling exhausted and broken! I have said it on this blog before and I will say it many times again: we have to develop a sense of the health and wellbeing of the people in our teams. We need time in the craziness and business of each day to stop the mad rushing, be still and take notice/be mindful/be heartful. We all need time to get up off our chairs and stretch and be more active – #runamile every day (it only takes 15 minutes). We need time to connect with each other (do we really take time to know the people we spend an inordinate amount of time with and alongside and check they are actually doing OK?), to eat well, stay hydrated and keep learning, so we don’t feel overwhelmed. Building these as an absolute priority into our daily work routines is vital, especially as pressures increase. The tendency is that when the going gets tough, our health gets significantly worse. We must learn to protect this in the midst of our business, or we will suffer the consequences in multiple ways.
Hope – there is an ancient proverb that says: “hope deferred makes the heart sick, but hope coming is a tree of life.” Hopelessness takes root when we feel that nothing can ever change and we feel powerless to influence anything. Hope is born when we develop ways of working in which teams can work together on solutions to the problems they are encountering, rather than being dictated to from on high in a unrelational way. Hope is about being able to sense that the future is alive with possibility. It is a life line when things are tough, when the tunnel is long and dark – just a little glimpse of light – and then faith builds that together we can get there.
Not difficult. Actually pretty straight forward. We don’t need unkindness or low morale in our work places. We don’t want to be suffering with compassion fatigue because we are physically and emotionally drained and running on empty. We really can create the kind of culture we want to see and experience in the NHS and social care – a culture of kindness – sounds nice doesn’t it?! All it takes is for us to remember humanity, humility, help, honour, health and hope.
Every day in Morecambe Bay 2000 children aged 4-11 run a mile a day (how fantastic is that?!). Inspired initially by the story from Stirling, the word is spreading and we now have another 3000 children starting across Lancashire. Our early data shows that there has been a dramatic improvement in the children’s health, from a physical, mental and educational perspective. 15 minutes a day for a healthier, happier child who is able to sleep better and concentrate more in class – it’s an absolute no brainer. And what is more – if it’s good for the kids, then it’s good for us all. We will all be more physically healthy, more mentally well and be more productive in our work if we just take a break (especially in that post-lunch lull) and do some exercise! Who amongst can’t spare 15 minutes a day? And for those who can’t run, there are other alternatives. Some of our kids here are cycling or walking or even using hand bikes according to their physical ability, but everyone is taking part. Even on rainy days, they just get out there, or if it’s especially vile, they do some aerobics or zumba in the classroom.
The challenge is this: if kids 4-11 can move a mile a day…..can’t we all? What if it became part of our culture, here in Morecambe Bay and further afield that everyone is given space in their educational or working day to run or move one mile each day? One mile – 15 minutes – easy!
Today, Simon Stevens, head of the NHS, will highlight that we are now half way through the 5 year period he launched to help transform the NHS. Across the UK, there are now 44 STPs (these stand for Sustainability and Transformation Plans). In order for the NHS to be sustainable in the future, there needs to be some transformation – it’s simple really. There are plenty of conversations happening about how the system itself can work more efficiently and many new ways of working are being trialled and forged. However, we all also need to transform the way we are living, as our current lifestyles are making the NHS have to deal with pressures it simply can’t cope with anymore. Part of our work as an STP in Lancashire is to work with our population to encourage us all to be more healthy and well in our daily lives. It isn’t rocket science. Simple, small steps go a long way to making significant changes to our health. The 4-11 year olds have laid down the gauntlet – one mile a day – a simple first step that packs a real punch. The NHS and City Council will be following in their wake. One of our headteachers lost 3 stone in 6 months just by following their lead…….let’s get moving, let’s be healthier and let’s have an NHS that is therefore more sustainable for the future. The Morecambe Bay Mile a Day could easily become the UK Mile a Day. (Also see The Daily Mile Foundation).
On Friday night, watching comic relief, I got quite excited as the total neared £50 million – I turned to my lovely wife and said – ha – there now, we can plug the gap in our local health economy for next year! (Obviously the money is desperately needed in many situations across the UK and Africa, so I wasn’t being flippant), but – that’s the target we’ve been set by the government in Morecambe Bay – save £50 million pounds – one tenth of our budget in 1 year!! Sure thing! The public just love to hear about cuts! Comic relief – you have to laugh, or you’d cry……..but the situation isn’t really very funny and yet, if we don’t head into the fray with some joy and hope in our hearts, we will become wearied very quickly.
Let me frame this problem by stating something we must then put to one side. Professor Don Berwick, health advisor to Barack Obama, and president of the IHI (Institute for Health Innovation at Harvard – a clever man by all accounts) recently stated very clearly to the Department of Health that it is quite simply not possibly to continue having a National Health Service run on only 8% of GDP (the lowest spend on healthcare of almost any OECD nation). We must also put to one side the recent publication by the King’s Fund, the independent think tank, that states quite clearly that the government are not investing anywhere near what they promised they would in the NHS. It also demonstrates that the NHS is not a bottomless pit, as some of the media would have us believe. Read it in more depth here:
We know we need more funding. We know there is much negativity in the press about the crisis we are facing, we know about the recruitment issues and we know about the low morale of staff and high strain on the service.
Having put all of that to one side and accepting that the NHS remains a political football, currently being given a good kicking, we do need to have a sensible conversation. Whether we like it or not, as we look into the future, it is unsustainable for the health and social care system to have to allocate 1/5th of its budget as a direct result of our lifestyles, 1/10th of its budget on diabetes (the vast majority relating to type II, which is hugely preventable and reversible) or to double pay for beds in nursing homes and hospitals because of unnecessary admissions. So…..what are we to do? Simon Stevens, the head of the NHS will, this week give a major speech on the direction the health service and the progress of the Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STPs), of which there are 44 across England – they have little chance of success if we do not believe that we are all in this together.
It truly involves all of us! We, the people, together must face this problem head on. We do not have to turn on each other in a time of crisis, we can turn to each other and use our collective wisdom and gifts to find a way through. This does not have to mean doom and gloom. It could mean better community cohesion, a more positive way of working together across the system, organisations working collaboratively in a way that makes more sense for those who need help and all of us taking a bit more responsibility for our own health and wellbeing. We must learn to rebuild the very fabric of society, based on love and trust, de-professionalise the public and civic space (as per Cormac Russell) and reconnect as human beings who care for each other and want to have systems that serve our needs. This will be made possible through multiple, small and large conversations in which we take time to ask some really deep and important questions, holding the space through the process of frustration as we wrestle together for solutions that we can all work with.We don’t leave our brains and expertise at the door, but nor do we behave in archaic hierarchical ways or hide behind our name badges and lanyards. Here in Morecambe Bay we have started this very process, using a set of values from ‘the art of hosting and harvesting conversations that matter’ – here is a link to one of our conversations in Morecambe:
Over the next two years, our team will be working with communities right around this Bay to ask and explore some important questions, such as these:
How do we begin well? Put another way – How do we enable our children to have the very best start in life? (This may include areas like breast feeding, bonding, parenting, healthy food, exercise and the massive public health issue that is child abuse – or adverse childhood experiences, or maybe issues like indoor vs outdoor learning, music, arts, sports, targets, sex, screen time, social media etc) – what are we going to do about this as a society?
How do we live well? How do we face some of the issues we are now having to tackle?How do we square up to some of the nonsensical adverts, learn to laugh at them, rather than be sucked in by them and change the message?! How do we reconnect, heal our divides and learn to live well alongside each other? How do we heal our past traumas that have such a huge impact on our health and wellbeing now? How might we build the kind of economy that cares about people and the planet? How might we live in an altogether more healthy way? How do we become less dependent on a medical model to fix our problems and take a more holistic view of what it means to be well?
How do we work well? How do we create work that cares for the future and sustainability of the planet? How do we work in ways that are beneficial to our health and by doing so actually help us to be more effective and efficient? How do we create a culture of kindness and compassion in our workplaces?
How do we age well? How do face retirement, without it becoming only a selection of cruises and alcohol (biggest problem drinking now in women over 60)? How do we connect three generations back to each other and enjoy life more fully together? How do we live well with increasing frailty and health issues? How do we understand the conditions we live with and learn how to manage them ourselves (self-care) as effectively as possible? How do we create the kind of social care that is compassionate, caring and serves to create community?
How do we die with dignity? We must ask ourselves some difficult questions here. Why do we admit so many people to hospital from nursing and residential homes, when there is little evidence that they get better any faster and then end up blocking the beds? Why are we not more radically reallocating resources out into the community to care for people in these settings and in their own homes? Why are we so afraid of our own mortality and allowing people to die well in environments that are familiar to them, surrounded, where possible, by people who know them and love them? How can we face our own deaths well and plan for them in a way that makes the end of our lives better for us and those around us?
If we take each of those questions in turn (as we plan to do) and really talk together about how we make society and therefore our health and wellbeing better for everyone, rather than leaving it to others to make those decisions from on high for us, then I think we will achieve more than we could ever imagine possible. It is in discovering one another, in encountering the other that we can be transformed and find new ways forward together.
A people movement or social movement such as this will invigorate and create space for those within the systems not only to reconnect with our own humanity but enable us also to have braver conversations about how we can share our resources more effectively, work together more creatively and reimagine how we can provide the kind of health and social care that makes sense for the needs of the people we serve. We might not save £50 million, but we can’t continue with things as they are and if we talk and work together, we could make a really difference.
Here is a video about a brilliant couple of days a bunch of us had in Morecambe, talking about how we discover what it is to be healthy and be part of a social movement to improve the health and wellbeing of everyone:
The subject of this blog is sensitive and difficult. It may stir up some difficult issues or memories for you, as you read. If this happens, then please take time to seek the help you need. I believe this blog and ones to follow might be some of the most important I have written to date.
I am currently reading a phenomenal book, sent to me in the post, by a dear friend of mine, who is a trained counsellor and knowing the work I do, felt that I should read it also. The book is called “The Body Keeps the Score” by the eminent Psychiatrist, Bessel Van Der Kolk. In my humble opinion, it should be compulsory reading for every person training in any of the clinical specialities, including public health and for those working in education. The book focusses on the detailed research and work done by Van Der Kolk and others at Harvard over the last 30 years in the whole area of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD), or “Disorders of Extreme Stress, Not Otherwise Specified” (DESNOS). It is not a part of our vocabulary, unfortunately, because even now, after a huge evidence base and many studies, there still remains no such psychiatric diagnosis. However, it is a hidden epidemic affecting huge numbers of our population and is the root of many of our major public health issues. So what causes this problem and just how wide spread is it? The evidence shows so strongly that the cause of CPTSD or DESNOS is Adverse Childhood Experiences, which we more starkly call Child Abuse.
Child abuse falls into four main categories: Physical abuse, Sexual Abuse, Verbal Abuse and Emotional abuse – usually in the form of neglect. 10% of children suffer regular verbal abuse. 25% suffer regular physical abuse. 28% of women and 16% of men have suffered sexual abuse. 16% regularly watch domestic violence. 87% of all those who suffer one type of abuse, are also abused in other ways. Each of these forms of abuse lead to major health problems later in life and studies are showing that it is not just mental health issues (many of which lead to inappropriate diagnoses like Borderline Personality Disorder or Bipolar Disorder and ineffective treatments) but also major physical health problems. Those who have been abused are twice as likely than others to develop cancer and four times as likely to have emphysema. The more difficult a person’s experiences, the higher the chance of developing heart, liver or lung disease at an early earlier age with much higher chances of taking more health risks with smoking, becoming overweight or having multiple sexual partners. There is good evidence to suggest a link with autoimmune diseases, such a lupus, and other complex conditions like chronic pain, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. The body cannot be separated from the mind and literally keeps the score of the internalised turmoil. So, even if the abuse happens before memories are formed, or our minds manage to forget or block out what has happened, the body simply cannot forget and sometime and in someway, the damage will show itself. Studies show that the overall cost of this appalling reality far exceed those of cancer or heart disease. In fact, eradicating child abuse would cut depression rates by over 50%, alcoholism by 66% and suicide, IV drug use and domestic violence by 75%. Antidepressants and antipsychotics are now some of our largest prescribing costs. We know this, but are doing very little about it. Perhaps it feels too big. Perhaps we don’t want to face the demons involved. Instead, we are numbing the problem, trying desperately to get people to be just functional enough to keep on serving the needs of our economic system, but we are not facing up to or dealing with this horrific problem, nor its true cost.
What can be done in the face of such evil? How can we develop a culture of compassion and restorative justice in which we can find a new way through for humanity? It isn’t getting any better. It is just as widespread and far reaching in its consequences as it was a generation ago. Is it possible for us to face up to the startling reality we face? Van der Kolk offers much hope, but it is not within the gift of the health service and social services to tackle this alone. If we are to take this issue seriously, we must embrace what Bessel refers to (at the end of chapter 2) as four fundamental truths:
Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring wellbeing.
Language gives us the power to change ourselves and others by communicating our experiences, helping us to define what we know and to find a common sense of meaning.
We have the ability to regulate our own physiology, including some of the so-called involuntary functions of the body and brain, through simple activities such as breathing, moving and touching – (learning to be present in our own bodies is a vital way of separating out the memories of the past which can overwhelm us at times).
We can change social conditions to create environments in which children and adults can feel safe and where they can thrive.
People can be healed of trauma. We need this at both an individual and corporate level. We have become so focussed on saving money, on quick fixes to ensure the NHS and Social Care System can survive, but we are ignoring the root cause of many of our ill health issues. If we are willing to face up to the truth of child abuse in our society and its long lasting and far reaching impact on overall health and wellbeing, then we might just be able to find a way through to healing and restoration of what has become an extremely broken society. In the blogs that follow, I will look at some of the ways we might find a way through this crisis of epidemic proportions. One thing we must face straight away is that we are spending our resources in the wrong places and are focussing our attention in the wrong areas. We must protect our children and help people learn how to be good parents. We must strengthen our school teachers and sense of community. We must invest in the first five years of life far more than we are doing so currently, especially those key first 12 months of bonding and attachment. Together, if we want to, with love, care, bravery and determination, we can change the future. There is hope. There is healing. Our systems are not yet designed to cope with this, but we must speak the unspeakable, break the silence and face up to the truth. The truth will set us free and enable us to develop the kind of wellbeing that every human being should be able to live within.