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Reflections from NHS England Medical Director Professor Sir Stephen Powis

NHS Medical Director, Professor Sir Stephen Powis reflected on life before the NHS and the milestones of the last 75 years, in an interview with the Innovation Agency.

Speaking at the North West Coast Research and Innovation Awards, Professor Powis described the impact of the birth of the NHS on 5 July 1948.

“In the years beforehand it was difficult to access medical care; it cost money so not everybody came forward when they needed to; and on that day in 1948 things flipped and there was a transformation. People were able to come forward to be seen and have their illnesses treated; and anybody who tells you about that time will say what a remarkable difference it was in the years after.

“But of course, 75 years, goodness me, haven't we seen some changes? It's hard to believe, but in 1948, we didn't know that smoking caused lung cancer, that was in the 1950s through Richard Doll, the epidemiologist in Oxford.

“We didn't have organ transplantation - and I'm a kidney doctor, my speciality was kidney transplantation. That wasn't around in 1948, that came in the 1950s.

“We didn't have defibrillators for when you have a heart attack, didn't have MRI scanners or CT scanners. We just had X-rays. We didn't have genetics. It wasn't until the 1950s that the structure of DNA was elucidated. So we knew very little about DNA and genes and how they affect disease.”

On the NHS today, he highlighted some of the latest exciting changes.

“We've got trials at the moment in England looking at the early diagnosis of cancer through a blood test, looking at alterations in DNA. We've got artificial intelligence reading those images, aiding radiologists in the diagnosis of disease; and we've got MRI scanners, we've got CT scanners, we've got all sorts of fantastic diagnostic interventions, some of which can be done remotely now and can be transmitted digitally so that you don't even need to go to the hospital or the GP to have that diagnosis.”

And in the next 75 years?

“I'm sure artificial intelligence and digital will transform health care. I'm sure there'll be diagnostic techniques that we can't even dream of at the moment.

“But one thing I do know, and that is that in 1948 it was the staff of the NHS, it was the people who came together to create the NHS doctors, nurses, porters, engineers, everybody that were the heartbeat of the NHS. And 75 years later, today, that is still the case.

“All the technology in the world, all the estate in the world, all the hospitals, all the buildings, it's still the people who make the NHS work. And I'm pretty sure that in 75 years’ time it will still be the people who work in the NHS who will be the most important thing and will be the people who provide the compassion, the kindness, the one-to-one care that really makes the difference to people's lives.”

The NWC Research and Innovation Awards were organised by the Innovation AgencyClinical Research Network North West Coast (CRN NWC); and Applied Research Collaboration North West Coast (ARC NWC).

View Professor Powis’ video interview on Youtube.

Notes to editors:

About the Innovation Agency
The Innovation Agency is the Academic Health Science Network (AHSN) for the North West Coast, one of 15 AHSNs in England who work together as the national AHSN Network.

Their role is to spread innovations at pace, helping facilitate change across whole health and social care systems to improve health and care and stimulate economic growth.

The AHSNs work together to deliver national programmes with funding from NHS England and the Office for Life Sciences. They also work closely with integrated care systems (ICSs) in their regions, to support innovations and improvements targeted at local populations.

The Innovation Agency covers Cheshire, Merseyside, South Cumbria and Lancashire, serving a population of just over four million residents.

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