Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Whose NHS is it anyway?

The morning after the Deerstalker I debriefed the Crew Chief. With her professional interest in medical provision at sports events I knew she’d be intrigued to hear how the organisers had managed to get first aiders and mountain rescue staff to accessible places on an entirely inaccessible course. We have pretty romantic conversations, the Crew Chief and I…

Anyway we got on to talking about the more extreme end of obstacle races, and the relatively high incidence of serious medical emergencies. This is almost inevitable as gung-ho but technically inept runners throw themselves off increasingly wild obstacles dreamt up by event organisers trying to innovate the next big thing in challenge runs. She mentioned with horror the sheer costs involved of getting ambulances and helicopters to these (often remote) events, calling out highly skilled medical professionals to airlift showboating mud runners to A&E because they’ve somehow got half a femur sticking out of their backsides. Her valid point is that this voluntary, reckless activity is a drain on resources, is unnecessarily dangerous and – crucially - is entirely preventable.

I nodded sagely in agreement because I am good at marriage.

Ambulance crew at Tough Guy 2009
Then I mulled it over for a while. Who else is using the health service’s resources? Where might that ambulance be if not responding to the self-inflicted ailments of runners so desperate to prove themselves that they’ll happily leap through flames or take an electric shock to the face? And most crucially, how many users of our beloved NHS rely on it to treat preventable ailments?

Smokers are an obvious place to start. The latest research suggests that smoking is likely to be costing the NHS between £2.5 and £6 billion every year. Preventable. It’s a similar figure for alcohol-related treatment. Preventable. Obese and overweight patients are more or less a bargain at just £4 billion every year. In many cases, that’s preventable too.

And here’s the fundamental difference; whilst puffing away on a fag, drinking 100 pints of Carling a week or stuffing your face with McDonald’s has literally no discernible health benefit to weigh against the massive cost of related healthcare, those reckless fools launching their fragile bodies off some monkey bars and into a freezing pond are at least being active. To me that really is the crux of the issue; whilst the occasional accident might make obstacle racing seem like a pointless endeavour, it’s reaching a demographic who might otherwise not engage in physical activity. And surely anything that gets people off the sofa and momentarily away from packing their arteries with Greggs sausage rolls has to be a good thing? Take this thought a step further and surely the only conclusion is that any physical activity that raises your heartrate, strengthens your muscles and improves your mental wellbeing has to be a good thing.

And let’s not for a moment discount the health charities and Air Ambulance services who profit considerably from the fundraising efforts of thousands of runners every year. I’m pretty sure that no smoker has ever used their habit as a means of raising money for a cancer charity. It would be a pretty audacious pitch on justgiving, that’s for sure…

I concede that these events are dangerous, and whilst there have been deaths in Tough Mudder races in the USA, it's worth remembering that people also die running marathons, and skiing slightly off-piste, and crossing the street, and in industrial accidents, and from diseases contracted on exotic holidays. Nothing is entirely without risk. I concede also, of course, that rescuing a daft bloke in fancy dress who’s broken an ankle by leaping off a cargo net is a less worthy use of an air ambulance’s limited resources than, say, hastening to the aid of a road traffic accident or to uplift someone suffering a heart attack.

But if ever a Health Minister decides to definitively rank the order of precedence for using our National Health Service, I would petition for the stricken runners to get a decent spot in the queue, to my mind well ahead of people who are eating or smoking or drinking themselves to death. If it’s a race for spots, we’ll probably do alright anyway.

Happy running (be safe out there)


2015 to date: miles run 234.2, parkruns 3, races 1

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