The National Health Service is 60 this month. In the first of a week-long series, Health Correspondent Emma Brady looks at how it evolved from the mining communities of south Wales.
When Aneurin “Nye” Bevan launched the National Health Service on July 5, 1948, it was a seemingly simple, egalitarian system which would provide every man, woman and child with free medical, dental and nursing care.
But it was not an entirely new idea.
It was based on the medical aid societies which had sprung up across Wales during the 1890s, into which miners and steelworkers paid a weekly subscription so that if they - or any member of their family - was unwell, a society doctor would treat them.
One of these was the Tregedar Medical Aid Society, which looked after the Bevan family and most probably sowed the seeds for the National Health Service in the mind of their young son, Nye Bevan.
So when his father, David Bevan, got involved in running the local society he saw first hand how effective it was in south Wales, and realised it could work on a national scale.
Nye campaigned vigorously for a National Health Service to be created after Sir William Beveridge published a landmark report on social reform in 1942.
Six years later, outside Manchester’s Park Hospital, he announced his socialist dream had become a reality. Leaflets were distributed to every home in the country.
It set out what the NHS would offer to “everyone - rich or poor, man, woman, or child - can use it or any part of it.
“There are no charges, except for a few special items. There are no insurance qualifications. But it is not a charity.
“You are all paying for it, mainly as taxpayers, and it will relieve your money worries in time of illness.”
For the first time anyone, over 16 would have their own doctor, and be able to access maternity services, hospital and specialists services, dentists, opticians and free prescriptions.
From the start it has been the envy of the world, due to the high standards of care and its core value that healthcare should be free at point of need.
Sylvia Beckingham became the NHS’s first patient when she was admitted to Park Hospital, now Trafford General Hospital, in Manchester on July 5, 1948. The 13-year-old was treated for a liver condition.
The intervening 60 years have brought about a host of medical, scientific and technical advances from the first transplant - a kidney transplant between 49-year-old twins at an Edinburgh hospital in 1960 - to a robotic arm assisting surgeons at St Mary’s Hospital in London, to correct irregular heartbeats.
Transplants are now common place, prompting the creation of the National Donor Register in 1994 to help meet demand, with some services previously seen as the preserve of the privileged - such as fertility treatment - now available to a wider community.
But it has not all been plain sailing, in particular following Margaret Thatcher’s attempt to privatise the NHS, after she turned over the utilities to the private sector, and relentless reforms have taken their toll.
Although the former Prime Minister’s plans were seen by some critics as a privatisation too far, it sparked debate on how the health service should develop in future.
Lord Ara Darzi, who is leading the Government’s review of the NHS, admits that by 1997 the NHS “was in relatively poor health” and while many patients received good care, it was marred by long waiting lists, poor access to GPs and dentists, and were often treated in dilapidated old buildings.
The introduction of national targets initially led medics to question whether patient care would be compromised if trusts were left to chase their tales to ensure patients are treated within 18 weeks of GP referral and wait no longer than four hours in A&E units.
As the December deadline for meeting those approaches, many hospitals are already comfortably achieving them, something that was unthinkable a decade ago.
With more people being treated at home or within the community, rather than in hospital, the NHS now wants to help the public avoid illness and injury.
So as it prepares to celebrate its diamond anniversary, it is vital that Britain retains a first-rate health service, fit and able to meet the every-changing needs of our 21st century society. In sickness and in health.