Sunday, 28 March 2010

Summary Care Records: Include me out

Like all those of my generation (the one that grew up listening to ITMA every Friday), I have always kept myself at the cutting edge of technological and social advances, striving constantly to be among the first to be involved in every new development. Therefore I was pleased—and flattered—when I received an official invitation to participate at a very early stage in an exciting new initiative.

The invitation gave details of the impending introduction of the Summary Care Records which are to be prepared for everyone over 16; they will initially contain basic information about your health and will then be updated cumulatively with summaries of all the care you receive under the NHS. The covering letter quoted my NHS number and explained that anyone doubtful about the confidentiality of these records can refuse to have one by obtaining an opt-out form and sending it to his GP.

Well, I'm doubtful. I don't care if anyone knows, for example, that I have two false knees (rather proud of them, actually), but I do care that the records could contain information which might be used for, say, identity theft. We all know that virtually every IT project commissioned by the NHS has been characterised by grotesque incompetence in conception and implementation, has wasted huge sums of money, and has ended in failure; there is no reason to suppose that the Summary Care Records will be any different. So all the brave talk about strict security measures is not reassuring. If you think these comments are unreasonable, note this:

By the same post as my package and my wife's, two others came through our letterbox. The envelopes were identical in appearance to ours and presumably enclosed similar items. They bore our correct address, postcode and all, but the addressees were two gentlemen of whom I had never heard; I shall call them John and Digby Phish-Hacker, for those are not their names. So before the project is even launched, material marked PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL has been sent to someone whom it does not concern and who has no right to see it.

If the NHS Care Records Office has already sent John and Digby's letters to our address, how can we be sure that they have not done, or will do, something else equally crass, like allocate our NHS Numbers to them? So I am exercising my option to have nothing to do with SCRs. I put the wrongly addressed envelopes back in the post unopened, marked Return To Sender, and I hope the matter ends there, both for me and the Phish-Hackers, wherever and whoever they may be.

I shall of course complain to the NHS Careless Records Office. If I receive no acknowledgement, I will just assume that one has been written but was sent to yet another wrong address, or posted without a stamp.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Sugar pills and magic water on the NHS

In a report published last month the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons concluded that:
By providing homeopathy on the NHS and allowing MRHA licensing of products which subsequently appear on pharmacy shelves, the Government runs the risk of endorsing homeopathy as an efficaceous system of medicine. To maintain patient trust, the Government should not endorse the use of placebo treatments, including homeopathy. Homeopathy should not be funded on the NHS and the MHRA should stop licensing homeopathic products.

This was a strong and unambiguous statement. In response, the homeopaths and their associations, understandably worried, came up with some muddled ravings, while others, speaking from positions of profound ignorance, rallied to their support.

Foremost among these was David Tredinnick, who is Conservative MP for Bosworth. He is known as the man who used parliamentary expenses to buy astrology software and training from ‘Crucial Astro Tools’, and has called in the Commons for the government to support medical astrology, to provide government funding of various kinds of quackery within the NHS and to use legislation to support quacks in their work.

This egregious fruitcake introduced an Early Day Motion to Parliament on 23rd February, expressing concern at the Select Committee's conclusions, and asserting that the report took insufficient account of the evidence. Anyone who believes that such protestations from the quacks are worth supporting should first study the Select Committee's official report (or at any rate skim through it: it runs to 216 pages, including the formal minutes, verbatim records of the proceedings and notes of the statements submitted in writing).

A number of simple-minded MPs have signed this motion to indicate their approval of Tredinnick's preposterous ideas. Andy Lewis has dissected their idiocy and D.C Colquhoun provides a handy list of the signatories. Many of them, happily, will not be returning to the House of Commons after May, and when the Parliamentary candidates have been announced we shall be able to see which of Tredinnick's deluded supporters are up for election. We might call this The Stupid List.

Voters in those constituencies which might elect one of them can then consider carefully whether they really want to be represented in Parliament by an MP who believes in magic potions which contain no active ingredient.

There is an e-Petition to the Prime Minister asking that the government implements the recommendations in the report as soon as possible. It has already acquired 1626 signatures; the closing date for signing is 24th February next year, so there is plenty of time to add your name, although we may hope that whatever government we get in May will have taken action long before then.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

In his flying machine

No 28 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century

August 1910: The Boltons living in Blackpool write to their son and daughter in Keighley about Grahame-White who dominated British aviation after 1910: We was all getting tea when he passed over our House. We saw him in the air, he was going beautiful. I am in shirt sleaves on Beach writing to you. grand whether here. sun powerfull

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Nothing new about it

In December 2008 the BBC reported on a repeat of the famous Milgram tests at Yale University, the results of which were published in 1968, in which volunteers were told to deliver electrical shocks to another volunteer played by an actor. Even after faked screams of pain, 70% were prepared to increase the voltage, the American Psychologist study found.

It is shameful that no-one concerned with a BBC news item put out today which excitably described a French TV game show in which exactly the same thing was done had taken the trouble to establish that the results of these tests were very old news indeed. Other researchers later got exactly the same results as Milgram, showing that apparently ordinary people can commit atrocities when instructed to do so by an authoritative figure. Clearly this applies whether those tested believe that they are helping with serious research or merely hoping to win a prize.

It was typical of the carelessness and frivolity of BBC News that they presented their piece about French show as if it had been a significant and newsworthy item, not even bothering to look up their own 2008 report.

Technical support

Sunday, 14 March 2010

A Good Prince

Here is a delightful essay by Max Beerbohm in which he paints a portrait of the Prince of Wales, later to become King Edward VII. In it he tells the true but little known story of the prince's violent and unprovoked assault on the wife of an elderly statesman. At some point while reading the piece you will understand why there is no record of a public apology ever having been made.

I first saw him one morning of last summer, in the Green Park. Though short, even insignificant, in stature and with an obvious tendency to be obese, he had that unruffled, Olympian air, which is so sure a sign of the Blood Royal. In a suit of white linen he looked serenely cool, despite the heat. Perhaps I should have thought him, had I not been versed in the Almanach de Gotha, a trifle older than he is. He did not raise his hat in answer to my salute, but smiled most graciously and made as though he would extend his hand to me, mistaking me, I doubt not, for one of his friends. Forthwith, a member of his suite said something to him in an undertone, whereat he smiled again and took no further notice of me.

I do not wonder the people idolise him. His almost blameless life has been passed among them, nothing in it hidden from their knowledge. When they look upon his dear presentment in the photographer's window—the shrewd, kindly eyes under the high forehead, the sparse locks so carefully distributed—words of loyalty only and of admiration rise to their lips.

For of all princes in modern days he seems to fulfil most perfectly the obligation of princely rank. In the heroic age, princes were judged according to their mastery of the sword or of the bow . We are less exigent now: we do but ask of our princes that they should live among us, be often manifest to our eyes, set a perpetual example of a right life. Too often they do not attain to our ideal. They give, it may be, a half-hearted devotion to soldiering, or pursue pleasure merely—tales of their frivolity raising now and again the anger of a public swift to envy them their temptations. But against this admirable Prince no such charges can be made. Never (as yet, at least) has he cared to 'play at soldiers.' By no means has he shocked the Puritans. Though it is no secret that he prefers the society of ladies, not one breath of scandal has ever tinged his name. Of how many English princes could this be said?

Upon the one action that were well obliterated from his record I need not long insist. It seems that the wife of an aged ex-Premier came to have an audience and pay her respects. Hardly had she spoken when the Prince, in a fit of unreasoning displeasure, struck her a violent blow with his clenched fist. Had His Royal Highness not always stood so far aloof from political contention, it had been easier to find a motive for this unmannerly blow. The incident is deplorable, but it belongs, after all, to an earlier period of his life; and, were it not that no appreciation must rest upon the suppression of any scandal, I should not have referred to it.

For the rest, I find no stain, soever faint, upon his life. The simplicity of his tastes is the more admirable for that he is known to care not at all for what may be reported in the newspapers. He has never touched a card, never entered a play-house. In no stud of racers has he indulged, preferring to the finest blood-horse ever bred a certain white and woolly lamb with a blue riband to its neck. This he is never tired of fondling: it is with him, like the roebuck of Henri Quatre, wherever he goes.

Suave and simple his life is! Narrow in range, it may be, but with every royal appurtenance of delight. Round the flower-garden at Sandringham runs an old wall of red brick, streaked with ivy and topped infrequently with balls of stone. By its iron gates, that open to a vista of flowers, stand two kind policemen, guarding the Prince's procedure along that bright vista. As his perambulator rolls out of the gate of St. James's Palace, he stretches out his tiny hands to the scarlet sentinels. An obsequious retinue follows him over the lawns of the White Lodge, cooing and laughing, blowing kisses and praising him. Yet do not imagine his life has been all gaiety! The afflictions that befall royal personages always touch very poignantly the heart of the people, and it is not too much to say that all England watched by the cradle-side of Prince Edward in that dolorous hour, when first the little battlements rose about the rose-red roof of his mouth. I am glad to think that not one querulous word did His Royal Highness, in his great agony, utter. They only say that his loud, incessant cries bore testimony to the perfect lungs for which the House of Hanover is most justly famed.

As yet, when we know not even what his first words will be, it is too early to predict what verdict posterity will pass upon him. Already he has won the hearts of the people; but, in the years which, it is to be hoped, still await him, he may accomplish more. Attendons! He stands alone among European princes—but, as yet, only with the aid of a chair.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Roll up your sleeve for me, sweetie

Over the past few weeks, my circumstances have been such that I have had to become acquainted with a number of NHS nurses. This has not been an unpleasant experience, for most of them are kind, friendly and competent, but there is one thing that many of them have been doing to me (apart from the nasty things they sometimes have to do) which irritated me.

Why have they never realised, or been told, that not everyone likes being addressed as 'my darling', 'my poppet' or 'my sweetheart'? Of course they mean well, but you don't have to be excessively standoffish or snooty to find this patronising and offensive. On a couple of occasions I suggested diffidently that I would prefer them to use my (first) name but I don't think they really understood why.

A nurse suggested to me that they use these mock-affectionate terms because they cannot remember every patient's name and don't like to keep asking, but this seems a feeble excuse; in that case, what's wrong with m'dear, which somehow doesn't sound patronising and has a cuddly, West Country ring to it?

I wouldn't mind a male nurse calling me mate; this strikes me as a friendly way of addressing an equal.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The flannelled fools at the wicket...

... or the muddied oafs at the goals. Kipling's 1902 poem The Islanders was written towards the end of the Boer War, which it calls unnecessary while denouncing the sending of ill-equipped troops to fight it. This has some contemporary resonance; perhaps less so, but still worth considering, is Kipling's condemnation in the same poem of a nation rendered complacent by bread and circuses: he was suggesting that excessive devotion to sport twists our priorities and enfeebles us.

Six years later, G K Chesterton took an equally disparaging view of sport, in an essay entitled Patriotism and sport:

...The Englishman with any feeling for England will know that athletic failures do not prove that England is weak, any more than athletic successes proved that England was strong. The truth is that athletics, like all other things, especially modern, are insanely individualistic. The Englishmen who win sporting prizes are exceptional among Englishmen, for the simple reason that they are exceptional even among men.
...The particular kind of evil that arises from our English form of the worship of athletics is that It concentrates too much upon the success of individuals. It began, quite naturally and rightly, with wanting England to win. The second stage was that it wanted some Englishmen to win. The third stage was (in the ecstasy and agony of some special competition) that it wanted one particular Englishman to win.
...The genuine English patriot will know that the strength of England has never depended upon any of these things; that the glory of England has never had anything to do with them, except in the opinion of a large section of the rich and a loose section of the poor which copies the idleness of the rich. These people will, of course, think too much of our failure, just as they thought too much of our success
....But the real historic strength of England, physical and moral, has never had anything to do with this athletic specialism; it has been rather hindered by it. Somebody said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on Eton playing-fields. It was a particularly unfortunate remark, for the English contribution to the victory of Waterloo depended very much more than is common in victories upon the steadiness of the rank and file in an almost desperate situation
....It was absurd to say that Waterloo was won on Eton cricket-fields. But it might have been fairly said that Waterloo was won on the village green, where clumsy boys played a very clumsy cricket. In a word, it was the average of the nation that was strong, and athletic glories do not indicate much about the average of a nation. Waterloo was not won by good cricket-players. But Waterloo was won by bad cricket-players, by a mass of men who had some minimum of athletic instincts and habits
....The difficulty is therefore that the actual raising of the standard of athletics has probably been bad for national athleticism. Instead of the tournament being a healthy mêlée into which any ordinary man would rush and take his chance, it has become a fenced and guarded tilting-yard for the collision of particular champions against whom no ordinary man would pit himself or even be permitted to pit himself. As long as the game was a game, everybody wanted to join in it. When it becomes an art, every one wants to look at it.

Chesterton wasn't actually making the point that the desire to watch sport has become infinitely stronger than the desire to participate in it but he might have been. Much of what he wrote a hundred years ago sounds quaint to us: nowadays we cannot distinguish quite so blithely between the tastes of the rich and the poor, and when he spoke of sport he meant riding to hounds, shooting, rowing and cricket; the idea of a millionaire footballer worshipped as a national hero would have been unthinkable to him.