Health: Using ideas of the past to shape NHS future

Bernard Cohen with Nigel Gray, chief officer of NHS Leeds North Clinical Commissioning Group
Bernard Cohen with Nigel Gray, chief officer of NHS Leeds North Clinical Commissioning Group
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Being able to go to the GP or hospital for healthcare is something most people take for granted.

But Bernard Cohen can not only remember the days before things were so simple, he was one of the first ever patients of the National Health Service.

The NHS was established in 1948, and Mr Cohen’s first experience of it was when he needed an operation for a squint in his eye.
The 73-year-old remembers things were somewhat different to today: “I saw the doctor in an open room, with the public there,” he said.

Prior to that he’d had some experience of pre-NHS healthcare – though he grew up in mainly Belfast with a spell in Canada, he’d broken his leg while visiting family in Leeds and also contracted chicken pox on the transatlantic boat crossing.

However it was the operation to correct a squint in which was the first time he was cared for under the then-fledgling NHS.

The run-up to his surgery was before the NHS was formed on July 5, 1948, when the health minister Aneurin Bevan launched his new National Health Service at Park Hospital in Manchester.

By the time he had the surgery, the NHS was in place and since 1948 Mr Cohen has lived all over the country, but returned to his birth city of Leeds 33 years ago.

Now he is being given the chance to have his suggestions about how to improve the service heard.

At a special event to gather the views of the public on how the NHS should change to meet the challenges it faces, Mr Cohen got talking to Nigel Gray, chief officer of the NHS Leeds North Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) – who is responsible for planning and funding healthcare for this part of the city.

Mr Gray said after their initial conversation, he knew Mr Cohen could provide useful input: “We thought ‘how can Bernard help us formulate some of those plans ?’ – that’s why we kept in contact.

“We are now writing our five-year plan for the city, in terms of some of the changes in the NHS.”

Mr Cohen, who is married to Roma and has one son, has plenty of ideas for improving the NHS, including more regular check-ups and longer GP appointment times.

“Everybody at the age of 50 should have an NHS check each year,” he said.

“And when I was a little boy going to the doctor, you spent 15 or 20 minutes with them.”

That’s an idea which the NHS are taking on board

“That’s a really good example of something that the public have said to us, it seems like a good approach and let’s go and discuss it,” says Mr Gray.

It turns out that there are many parts of the CCG’s plans which Mr Cohen can relate to.

“With older people living longer, sometimes their partners die and loneliness is getting to be a big thing,” Mr Gray added.

“How do we work with people to make sure they are supported?”

Mr Cohen is involved with an array of activities, many of which he’s taken up since he retired - just last year.

Despite being a pensioner himself, these include supporting other older people, such as making visits to a nursing home to sing with the residents, which he has seen has prompted a reaction from a resident with dementia.

It’s ideas from Mr Cohen, and people like him, which Mr Gray says can be crucial in helping to make decisions about where to spend the limited NHS funds.

“Often they don’t cost a lot of money, but can make quite a dramatic impact,” the NHS head said.

That may include things like phone consultations which GPs or nurses - which Mr Cohen explained had been useful to him.

For Mr Gray, the chance to get the opinion of his patients directly is really valuable.

“It’s great to meet Bernard and hear about what it was like for local people before NHS services began.

“It was a useful reminder to us all that healthcare has changed so much over the years with many breakthroughs and improvements in patient care helping people to lead healthier, longer lives.”

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