Professor Sir Stephen Hawking, one of the most celebrated scientists in recent history, died this week. The legacy he leaves is diverse. Over a lengthy career, Hawking made contributions not only to theoretical physics, but also to civic society, politics, disabled rights and even American sitcoms.
In his final years, however, Hawking returned to an issue he long cared passionately about: healthcare. In a series of high profile swipes at the Government, Hawking railed against what he perceived as chronic underfunding for the NHS and increasing privatisation. Last December, he even joined a lawsuit against NHS England in an attempt to stop the introduction of new Accountable Care Organisations to oversee NHS services.
Whether or not you agree with his views (and several thought leaders in healthcare have not) it is easy to understand why Hawking held such a personal stake in the NHS’ future. Motor neurone disease is a rare, little understood condition. When he was diagnosed aged 22, Hawking was given only a few years to live, due to the lack of treatment options. Later, when he contracted pneumonia in 1985, doctors in Switzerland suggested turning off his life support. It was only at his wife’s insistence that Hawking was flown back to an NHS hospital in Cambridge, where he was treated and survived.
Since its inception in 1948, the NHS has pioneered new research and treatments for rare and complex conditions like Hawking’s. Today, the pace of scientific discovery is accelerating at the greatest speed in history. The development of gene therapies, for instance, now offer potential cures for rare disease patients who, like Hawking, have historically been left without options.
However, the 21st Century has also seen great barriers arise to prevent world-class care reaching patients through the NHS. This year, NHS hospitals are expected to record a deficit of nearly £1 billion. Funding shortages, a workforce crisis, and rising demand from an ageing population all contribute to this. If these issues are not addressed soon, the science that is driving next-generation healthcare will struggle to find a place in the UK.
Debate around innovative solutions is starting to grow. Outcome-based pricing for new medicines – i.e. only paying for medicines if they work – is an approach increasingly supported by new evidence. Long-term funding solutions are also appearing on the periphery, such as taxation increases to allow greater spending on NHS services.
Whether these debates are converted to action remains to be seen. However, Professor Hawking’s persistent activism provides a blueprint for us all as we seek new ways to provide world-class care, free at the point of use, long into the future.