Simon Stevens appears on Jeremy Vine Radio 2 show

NHS England’s Chief Executive Simon Stevens was interviewed live on Jeremy Vine’s BBC Radio 2 programme today.

The NHS chief featured on the segment of the show entitled ‘What Makes Us Human?’

He read a piece he had penned entitled: “What makes us human? –The pursuit of health and the capacity to care.”

Following the reading, Jeremy Vine asked him questions about his upbringing, family life, career and working for the NHS.

Simon explained how he was born in Birmingham and lived there until he was five-years-old when he moved south. He talked about his happy home environment growing up and his father being a baptist minister.

Asked whether he was religious, the NHS chief said: “I am questioning and open but not a regular worshiper .”

Simon moved on to talk about his time at comprehensive school and Oxford University.

Jeremy continued to ask about the start of Simon’s work in the health system and about his time on the NHS Managers Scheme. Simon explained how his first week was spent portering patients around the hospital in County Durham and how he went on to work in the mortuary doing administration support. The different roles around the hospital really allowed him to get a front line view on the health system.

“I found that an invaluable experience, subsequently because it gives you a clear sense of what life’s like at the sharp end and can be quite different than how it seems in the national debates,” he said, explaining how most NHS managers are deeply committed to the idea of a National Health Service and improving services alongside doctors and nurses.

Simon talked about his time running community and psychiatric hospitals and the change of services to meet the local needs of mental health patients.

“We are seeing a big shift in power away from the system and back to the individual and that is how we get our common humanity recognised in these types of situations.”

Simon shared his thoughts on obesity, claiming “Obesity is the new smoking” and talked about his own weight gain and how he lost over three stone.

Jeremy asked if people need to take responsibility and Simon explained: “Part of the question is how we prepare our kids – not allowing juice with every meal and kicking a football around at the weekend. Small actions- the cumulative effect will have a huge impact.”

Bringing the interview back to ‘What makes us human?’, Jeremy asked Simon about the qualities in the NHS that make us human. Simon answered: “The NHS embodies the idea that care should be available according to need and not according to the ability to pay.”

He also commended the millions of carers who work everyday, unpaid, to care for their loved ones.

Simon Stevens – What makes us human? –The pursuit of health and the capacity to care.

“A philosopher once said: “Health isn’t everything, but without it you’ve got nothing”

“So for the last four thousand years – and probably longer – we humans have been treating our ailments and trying to improve our health. That’s true of no other species on the planet. So my argument is: it’s this pursuit of health, and our capacity to care, that’s part of what makes us human.

“Admittedly for most of human history, our ancestors’ medical efforts weren’t that effective. But as science has advanced, superstition and quackery have retreated. The last 150 years or so have seen staggering advances – a British woman today can expect to live over twice as long as when Queen Victoria came to the throne. And Britain has a track record to be proud of. We’re the nation that has given humanity antibiotics, vaccines, modern nursing, hip replacements, IVF, CT scanners, and breakthrough discoveries from the circulation of blood to the existence of DNA.

“We should feel both optimistic and ambitious for the further advances that lie within reach. That’s why, for example, the National Health Service and our partners have just launched a groundbreaking new effort to decode 100,000 human genomes. Over the next four years, our doctors and scientists will be undertaking world-leading DNA research into the causes of and treatments for cancer and rare diseases. In future, medicine is going to be much more tailored to each individual patient. We’re moving from one-size-fits-all treatments to personalised care, with higher cure rates and fewer side effects.

“But while this so-called ‘precision medicine’ is in some ways leading us to think about the ‘me’ in health care as against the ‘us’, in other ways we need the opposite. As the Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari argues in his provocative new book ‘Sapiens, a brief history of humankind’, family and community seem to have more impact on our happiness than health or money.

“I’d suggest though that family and community are integral to our health and mental wellbeing, not separate from it. If you want to look for lived examples of compassion and humanity in Britain today, a good place to start is with the amazing contribution of six and a half million unpaid carers. Supporting their loved ones, their friends, their neighbours – at times of illness or frailty or distress. These caring relationships – often stressful, unrecognised and undersupported – sustain millions of our fellow citizens in a way that tax-funded state services never could.

“A couple of weekends ago as I was buying the Sunday newspapers, an anxious and frail old lady came into the shop and asked the newsagent where the TV section had disappeared to from the paper she’d bought earlier that morning. Clearly a regular visitor, he patiently showed her it – and then offered to walk her back home. That small act of kindness is part of what voluntary organisations are calling for as ‘dementia friendly communities’.

“Most societies recognise the special obligations we owe to our families and those closest to us. These deep moral beliefs have withstood the assaults of some of the darkest periods in human history – Stalinism, Maoism, Nazi Germany, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. But the moral development of humanity is also the history of a widening sense of who we recognise as ‘one of us’. Of who we care about, and who we care for. Seeing the world through the eyes of others, and putting ourselves in their shoes – beyond the confines of tribe or class, gender or generation, sexuality or disability – in favour of our common humanity.

“While not perfect, at its best our National Health Service embodies such a shared commitment by the British people. There when we need it, at the most profound moments in our lives. At the birth of our children. At the deaths of our loved ones. And at every stage in between – as we grapple with hope, fear, generosity, loneliness, compassion – some of the most fundamental elements of the human spirit.

“But however good any nation’s health service is, it can only ever support – not replace – the mutual respect, nourishing relationships and loving care that embody our shared humanity.”