British Defend Their Healthcare System

In America's healthcare reform debate, there is no greater whipping boy than the National Health Service (NHS,) Britain's healthcare system. The NHS is being used as an example of the "failed Socialist" model of healthcare. FOX host Glenn Beck took some shots at the NHS, apparently forgetting his own nightmare journey when he received subpar care in an American hospital. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley told a radio station last week that "countries that have government-run health care" would not have given Senator Edward Kennedy, who suffers from a brain tumor, the same kind of care as in the U.S. because he is too old. And most impressively, FOX News's treasure, Neil Cavuto, even claimed universal healthcare is a terrorism recruitment tool. Seriously.

Conservative hosts and politicians alike must have been overcome with joy when they finally secured a Conservative British politician who was willing to bad mouth the NHS, which remains extraordinarily popular in Britain. Daniel Hannan previously sat as an Independent after having been expelled from the European People's Party. Hannan is most famous for opposing the European Union and praising Iceland's "economic miracle" prior to the country's titanic crash in 2008. It was probably that stellar resume that first caught the eye of FOX News, which couldn't secure the microphone to his lapel fast enough.

These kinds of attacks on the NHS aren't unusual or new, but what is unique is the British response this time to the mad attacks on their healthcare system. British citizens -- particularly tech savvy residents -- are fighting back on Twitter. The top trending topics after Hannan's FOX declarations included #welovetheNHS and #NHS. British Twitterers boasted 'I Heart NHS' avatars designed by Twibbon, a group that spreads awareness about causes by overlaying an image onto supporters' Twitter profile avatars. The Twibbon team says during our interview that the response to the 'I Heart NHS' design has been "magnificent." They add, "In the UK, people often talk about political apathy and show concern over disappointing voting turnouts. What everyone has shown over the last few days is a testament to the power of social networking, and Twitter in particular, not only to unite people in solidarity, but also to initiate global conversations at grassroots level."

Graham Linehan, the man behind the #welovetheNHS tag, tells me he was motivated by FOX's irresponsible coverage of the healthcare reform debate.

I think that the way that FOX News has been raising the temperature of the health care debate over there is one of the most reckless and cynical things I have ever seen. It's just mindblowing to me. It's also infruriating the way they change their coverage of the UK according to their needs. So when they wanted a partner to legitimise an illegal and ill-thought-out war, the UK was the best country in the world. Now that their needs are different, they attack the UK as 'Socialist'. It's breathtaking, how little shame they have.

What really inspired Linehan to do something was when Investor's Business Daily published an editorial claiming Steven Hawking "wouldn't have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless." Of course, the claim is absurd as Hawking stated later, pointing out that he would not be alive today if it hadn't been for the NHS.

Where other British citizens saw gross lies, exaggerations, and frustrating half-truths, Linehan saw a "golden opportunity to kickstart a campaign to redress the balance a little bit." He linked to the Hawking article and the #welovetheNHS hashtag was born. "I thought it might pick up steam once people saw the ridiculousness of that story, but I had no idea how big it would become. Three days now, and we're still trending," says Linehan.

The online response to the We Love the NHS campaign is overwhelming. "NHS Saved my life as a 19 year old naive lad!" writes one Brit. "Saved my life, saved my wife's life, beat my brother-in-law's cancer and embodies a compassionate civilized ideal #welovetheNHS," writes one more. The movement now includes some of Britain's most powerful leaders, including Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who Tweeted "NHS often makes the difference between pain and comfort, despair and hope, life and death. Thanks for always being there #welovetheNHS."

British newspapers, politicians, and medics are rushing into the debate partly to defend the NHS and partly to gain some kind of political leverage. Labor hoped to embarrass David Cameron by challenging him to disown the Hannan comments, which he did. "Nobody should be in any doubt, for the Conservative Party, the NHS is the number one priority," said Cameron to Sky News.

The British newspaper, Daily Mirror, has started calling America "the land of the fee" because of the way patients are forced to pay for medical services. Senior figures in British healthcare are also frustrated at the portrayal of the NHS. Mike Hobday, of Macmillan Cancer Support, stated: "We are really furious at the way in which the NHS, which is the best healthcare system around, is being denigrated by a group of people who clearly don't have the first idea about how it works."

"The NHS does a damn fine job," says president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, Dr. Alan Maryon-Davis. "These claims are complete and utter rubbish...The horrific thing about the American system is that there are tens of millions of people without health insurance. We spend less on health in terms of GDP than America but if you look at health indices, especially for life expectancy, we have better figures than they do in America," he adds.

The nexus of the Internet makes the dissemination of disinformation difficult. Such interconnectedness means the lie of "dangerous Socialized medicine" cannot sustain itself when Brits of all ages and backgrounds shout to the rafters that they love the NHS, and are here to defend it.

Cross-posted from Allison Kilkenny's blog. Also available on Facebook and Twitter.