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Twitter, Stephen Hawking and Brits Enter the Health-Care Debate


The top topic on Twitter right is "welovetheNHS." That stands for "we love the National Health Service," and it's a product of Brits who are tired of hearing the cheap, efficient and universal health-care system smeared in the American debate. Damien G. Walter, for instance, recalls that "I had a brain fever when I was 11. The dr came to our home three days running. No one asked for a penny." Mandy says, "My husband had a heart attack 5 months after we married. NHS surgeon woken in middle of night to do operation, saved his life." Doc Occupant -- a British doctor -- writes that "we understand that some things are too important to be done strictly and solely for profit." You can follow the conversation here.

But the most quietly compelling statement from a British citizen didn't come on Twitter. It came in this morning's Guardian. Columnist Hugh Muir was struck by the editorial in Investor's Business Daily that asserted, "People such as scientist 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." Muir, like Hawking, is British, and is treated by the NHS. So he called Hawking for his reaction.

We say his life is far from worthless, as they do at Addenbrooke's hospital, Cambridge, where Professor Hawking, who has motor neurone disease, was treated for chest problems in April. As indeed does he. "I wouldn't be here today if it were not for the NHS," he told us. "I have received a large amount of high-quality treatment without which I would not have survived." Something here is worthless. And it's not him.

Investor's Business Daily, incidentally, has now deleted the offending line from their editorial and published a correction. "This version corrects the original editorial which implied that physicist Stephen Hawking, a professor at the University of Cambridge, did not live in the UK," reads the addendum.

But that's not a correction at all. IBD never claimed that Hawking didn't live in the UK. It claimed that the NHS would judge him worthless and leave him to die. That was what was wrong. And that has not been corrected by the IBD -- which says a lot about how much trust readers should place in their work. Instead, it has been corrected by Hawking himself. And these many, many, many tweets. How strange that we can get better and more accurate information about international health systems from Twitter than from many of our major media outlets.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Richard Pohle/PA.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 12, 2009; 11:51 AM ET
Categories:  Health Reform  
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Next: Is There Anything Sarah Palin Can't Polarize?


IBD - one of the worst Media outlet. Not only for the general non-investor it is a useless and misleading media; I doubt even for investors it made any money at all when all these establishments have been so wrong in last few years; with eggs all over their faces.

Posted by: umesh409 | August 12, 2009 12:12 PM | Report abuse

They're going to be talking about this in a few minutes on Radio 4, if anyone's listening.

Posted by: KathyF | August 12, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

As an individual, Dr. Hawking is entitled to privacy and I don't want to speculate on the details of his health care. However, it would not be a surprise to see a productive person with a long term debilitating disease require a great deal of medical care. One of the reforms that is opposed I guess by IBD is an end to lifetime caps on claims. The lifetime cap in the United State does amount to a real decision on the value of a life being made now in the U.S. with the full support of the anti health care folks. That is, they support real placement of value on life and oppose imaginary placements of value.

Posted by: windshouter | August 12, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse

“Doc Occupant -- a British doctor -- writes that ‘we understand that some things are too important to be done strictly and solely for profit.’”

We recognize that in the US too. Our education system, our transportation infrastructure, our defense system, public safety including fire and police, most of our investments in research and development, our main retirement system, and many other things are part of the public sector, paid for by taxes on everyone and benefitting everyone.

In that respect we are like most other advanced countries.

In fact, the only thing that we have left out that most countries include is health care. For a variety of historic reasons, almost none having to do with our deep faith in the power of private industry, our health care system (except, of course, for seniors, the very poor, active duty military, retired military, Native Americans, and some others) remains in the hands of the profit system.

The reforms being contemplated do not remove most health care from the profit system. They seek to repair some of the most obvious problems with the system. Many of these repairs will benefit the profit system, both in and out of health care. One very tiny ($11 billion out of $2.5 trillion) part of the reforms suggests offering a non-profit alternative for a small number of people who do not have employer insurance, Medicare, or Medicaid. Otherwise the proposals preserve the existing profit system.

Posted by: PatS2 | August 12, 2009 12:26 PM | Report abuse

I had a quite interesting discussion earlier this week with a med student in Britain. He had written about all the hoops he had to jump through to get into med school, so I asked him why he would want to do that to be a physician for the NHS. He is aware that we are in the middle of having this health care debate in the U.S. but was shocked to hear from me how the NHS is being described here.

Posted by: adagio847 | August 12, 2009 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Maybe we can get the British to storm some town halls?

I mean, it would be the battle of the rabid supporters of the healthcare system that's not on the table versus the rabid opponents of the healthcare system that's not on the table!

Cage match! With ACCENTS!

Posted by: theorajones1 | August 12, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

Funny thing is Private Health Insurance exists in the UK for those who choose it...The NHS is not compulsory!
Slating the free service is just like slating free schools... Who would do That?? Ohh yes..

Posted by: Parax | August 12, 2009 3:29 PM | Report abuse

I found this through StumbleUpon and thought I'd add my experiences with the NHS.

In a series of accidents, I've broken toes, my right collarbone, received 3rd degree burns and shattered my left femur. The toes were x-rayed and splinted. The collarbone was x-rayed, examined and put in a sling. The burns received skin grafts and several months of follow-up care and physiotherapy. The femur has had 3 operations and close on 9 months of physio with more operations to come.

I've had no bills for any of this. Because I currently don't have a job the NHS pays for my shoe modifications and travel costs to see consultants.

The NHS isn't perfect but in my experience people who need treatment get treatment, regardless of what job they have or how much money they have.

Posted by: TomJ3 | August 12, 2009 8:33 PM | Report abuse

The NHS has it's share of real problems and all of us in the UK appreciate that. There are some really bad stories out there - I've suffered a couple myself. Medical malpractice suits are not unheard of in the USA either. But to suggest the millions of dedicated professionals (and British society as a whole) would allow some sort of state euthanasia programme for the disabled, as the Republican Prty is trying to suggest, is deeply offensive to our medical profession and our society as a whole. The NHS is (so the urban myth goes) the world's second biggest civilian employer after Indian Railways - not only have we all been treated by it we all know someone who works for it. Thus the depth of our feelings here.

Posted by: FantasticTeeth | August 13, 2009 10:57 AM | Report abuse

From a Hawking bio:

After the tracheostomy, Stephen would need round-the-clock nursing. The best the National Health Service could offer was seven hours’ nursing help a week in the Hawkings’ home, plus two hours’ help with bathing. They would have to pay for private nursing. The advance from the book would not last long, and there was absolutely no certainty about its eventual success. To Jane there seemed little long-term hope. How were they to survive if he could never work again? There were few possibilities. She would willingly have left her own career and devoted herself full-time to looking after her husband, but she was not a qualified nurse, and in any case, who would then provide for the family? The alternative was the dreaded thought of Stephen in a nursing home, unable to work, slipping into gradual decline and eventual death. “There were days when I felt sometimes I could not go on because I didn’t know how to cope,” Jane has said of that period.

It was obvious they would have to find financial support from somewhere. Jane wrote letter after letter to charitable organizations around the world and called upon the help of family friends in approaching institutions that might be interested in assisting them. Help arrived from an American foundation aware of Hawking’s work and international reputation, which agreed to pay £50,000 a year toward the costs of nursing. Shortly afterward several other charitable organizations on both sides of the Atlantic followed suit with smaller donations. Jane feels bitter about the whole affair. She resents the fact that, after paying a lifetime of contributions to the National Health Service, they were offered such meager help when the need arose. She is very aware that if her husband had been an unknown physics teacher he would now be living out his final days in a residential home. “Think of the waste of talent,” she has said of the situation.


Posted by: msoja | August 19, 2009 9:40 AM | Report abuse

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