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Capturing the stories of the NHS

On 5 July 1948 history was made as the National Health Service was introduced in the United Kingdom. It was the first time in history that completely free healthcare was made available on the basis of citizenship, and 72 years later we are more grateful than ever to have it.

Over the years, the NHS has faced some huge challenges and saved countless lives.

In an attempt to document all of this, The University of Manchester’s Stephanie Snow created the NHS at 70 project with the aim of collecting NHS stories from patients, staff and families to create a digital archive of the service’s long and illustrious history.

Stephanie, whose background is in the history of healthcare, decided to set this project up in 2017 after becoming frustrated that there wasn’t an openly accessible place that reflected what the NHS was all about.

Stephanie said: “My main field of research since around 2007 has been focussed on contemporary history, particularly the history of the NHS.”

“Within this body of work, I started to realise that the sources we were using, in terms of documents and oral history, didn’t really reflect what the NHS was in terms of the fact that since 1948 it’s been absolutely central to everyday life and work across the UK.”

“It got me thinking that we haven’t really got a proper historical record of the NHS, so I submitted an application to the National Lottery Heritage fund to create a history of the NHS.”

Dr Stephanie Snow

Dr Stephanie Snow

Stephanie snow is a historian of medicine and healthcare based in the University’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine.

View academic profile

Covering all bases

Part of the application detailed how volunteers would need to be recruited and trained in oral history methods in order to go out and conduct interviews with patients, staff and the general public.

So far, over 150 people have volunteered and been trained and more than 1,000 recordings have been banked. Voices that have never been heard before are now on historical record, something that Stephanie was always keen to ensure.

“This isn’t just about the doctors, nurses and surgeons, who obviously do a fantastic job. But it’s about everyone involved in the NHS like the porters, the lab technicians and the catering staff,” Stephanie explained.

“Finding these people to interview hasn’t been as challenging as we thought thanks to our amazing volunteers. We actually have a lot of ex-NHS staff who volunteer, and who have a huge network of ex-colleagues to call upon. We also have local and national partners, such as the Stroke Association and Age UK, who are incredibly supportive in this respect.”

“Now, their voices will go into the first digital archive to ever document the history of the NHS for people to use for research, education, heritage and so on.”

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Through the years

The stories that have been gathered go all the way back to times that pre-date the inception of the NHS, with one interviewee talking about her experiences of campaigning on the streets in favour of a national health service, right up to stories about the coronavirus pandemic.

The diverse range of interviewees is also clear to see, with different ethnics groups, age groups and religions all represented within the archive.

“Our youngest interviewee is 18 and our oldest is 105,” Stephanie explained.

“We have such a wide array of stories. One that always stays in my mind is someone who spoke about what healthcare was like before the NHS. She mentions an occasion where she was having her tonsils removed and the GP came to the house to do it and she remembers her mother scrubbing the kitchen table because that’s where she was going to have the operation!”

“Then, on the flip side, we have a lot of teenagers talking about their experiences of receiving mental health support via the NHS in modern times.”

COVID-19

There have been some coronavirus related stories gathered in the past few months. However, the pandemic and social distancing rules have made it more difficult to conduct interviews.

Naturally, the solution was working remotely, and an incredible 400 telephone interviews have taken place since lockdown.

“This is an extraordinary moment in the service’s history, so we had to do something,” Stephanie said.

“Some of the interviews are happening with the same individuals on a recurring basis so we can capture how COVID-19 is developing and affecting the NHS, which has been fascinating.”

“Some of our volunteers have fed back that being part of this project during the pandemic has helped them massively because it’s given them a purpose during lockdown.”

Making a difference

The University’s Making a Difference Awards 2020 saw Stephanie and her team of researchers and volunteers highly commended for their work on the project.

Being recognised at the awards was something that Stephanie wasn’t expecting but certainly appreciated.

“It’s lovely to be recognised because one of Manchester’s great strengths is the fantastic work that so many people do across the board and you look at other people’s projects and you just think ‘wow’,” Stephanie said.

“To have our project included was a real accolade so we were all really delighted.”

““This isn’t just about the doctors, nurses and surgeons who obviously do a fantastic job. But it’s about everyone involved in the NHS like the porters, the lab technicians and the catering staff””

Looking ahead

The success of NHS at 70 has enabled Stephanie and her team to expand the project further through a £1m grant award for NHS Voices of Covid-19 from the UKRI/AHRC Covid-19 Urgency Call.

Working in partnership with the British Library, the team will deliver an additional 900 interview sessions that, together with the NHS at 70 archive, will be preserved as a permanent public resource and used to inform policy and practice.

“We’re really excited about this project and have already collected over 200 COVID-19 voices, including Nick, the respiratory doctor who treated Prime Minister Boris Johnson in intensive care,” Stephanie explained.

“By building on the partnerships we’ve built through NHS at 70 we will have a unique opportunity to capture the unfolding of this global pandemic and document how it has impacted our lives and communities across the UK.”

The latest project has also received the seal of approval from the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham.

He said: “These are the voices of the people who went to work to save lives, to protect communities, and to give us care and dignity in our darkest days.”

“These personal accounts tell the story of the NHS at a moment unlike any other, and of all the lives that have been deeply affected by this crisis. They are an essential addition to the NHS at 70 collection.”

 

Discover more about the NHS at 70 and NHS Voices of Covid-19 projects.