Published 8/2/2012, Vol. 38, No. 3
Nursing is unlikely to become an Olympic sport, but it is remarkable how it has become associated with the London 2012 Olympics following the major part that the United Kingdom National Health Service (NHS) played in the Olympic Games’ opening ceremony. Over the years, the Olympics seem to be defined not by events on the track and in the field, but by the opening ceremony. If Sydney 2000 was reckoned to be spectacular and Beijing 2008 defining, the much-speculated mystery of London 2012 was revealed on Friday, 27 July; and the jury remains out on the verdict. The only thing on which all agree is surprise.
In true British self-deprecating style, the opening ceremony was predicted to be an embarrassment. The choice of Danny Boyle, the producer of some controversial films, was considered imaginative. However, budgetary restrictions and the likelihood of a good British downpour led most to expect disappointment. Indeed, the setting up of the stadium, snippets of which were broadcast, and the first 30 minutes led to a wave of derision on Twitter; I even participated. Then the ham acting and the almost incomprehensible—except to left-wing social historians—allusions to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the trade union movement gave way to some fantastic effects, and most viewers were hooked. However, the wave of derision was superseded by a tsunami of appreciative activity on Twitter when a lengthy section of the opening ceremony was dedicated to the NHS, with nurses featured predominantly. Retweeting and secondary commenting on Twitter lasted for days, and the vast majority was positive. President and Mrs. Obama of the United States were present but, as yet, their views are unknown.
The NHS and nursing
What most of the events depicted in the opening ceremony meant to anyone outside the United Kingdom is beyond me. However, the NHS—love or hate the concept—is such an iconic part of British postwar social and political history that few could have missed the significance of its inclusion. In terms of size, the NHS is exceeded only by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, the Indian Railway Corporation and the American supermarket chain Walmart. Nurses form the vast majority of NHS staff and, as such, represent the single largest group of employed professionals in Europe.
Nursing and nurses are held in great affection by the U.K. public, despite the occasional and much-published misdemeanors of the few. The same applies here in Australia, where I am at the moment. In an annual Most Trusted Professions survey, nurses recently placed fourth behind paramedics, firefighters and rescue volunteers—people value having their lives saved, above all else—but nurses outranked pilots and doctors. Australian health care is very different from that of the United Kingdom.
In the United States, nurses are consistently the most trusted profession, as shown by Gallup’s annual Honesty and Ethics survey. In the United Kingdom, nurses are not included in the equivalent Trust in Professions survey as, generally, nursing is not considered to be a profession—a painful point that I will not pursue here. In the United Kingdom, doctors are consistently rated at the top.
Nursing and the NHS are virtually synonymous; private health care barely has a foothold in the United Kingdom. Suggestions of its expansion are greeted by as much left-wing protest as President Obama’s efforts to expand free health care at the point of delivery in the United States were greeted, by some, as heralding the end of civilization in the known world. It strikes me, therefore, that whatever the health care system in a country, nurses are held in high regard.
Political views aside, we have much to thank Danny Boyle and the London 2012 Olympics for, in terms of putting health care on the world stage and highlighting the contribution of nursing. The issue for nurses worldwide and, especially for those of us who work in the United Kingdom, is whether we will squander this opportunity or grasp it.
Roger Watson, PhD, RN, FAAN, professor of nursing at the University of Hull in the United Kingdom, is a frequent visitor to Australia and China, where he has visiting positions. He is also editor-in-chief of Journal of Advanced Nursing. RNL