Reflecting on being asked to write this article, it struck me as surprising that as a doctor I am rarely asked about wellbeing rather than illness.
The National Health Service constitution opens with the line; “The NHS belongs to the people. It is there to improve our health and wellbeing."
I personally find great fulfillment in my role as a doctor, foremost in the daily interactions with patients, but, besieged by the challenges of treating illnesses and fighting back against disease, as healthcare professionals, maybe the focus is not always upon health and wellbeing more holistically. And that of ourselves and colleagues.
It isn’t just medicines that can make people better: it’s the people around them and the lives they lead. Sometimes it’s a phone call from a friend or a cup of tea or a nurse or doctor taking five minutes to hold a hand. Sometimes it’s walking the dog over the fells on a sunny day, sometimes it’s the hope that there’ll be one more day like that soon.
In my work, I treat an eclectic range of patients, from young sports professionals to older people with complex illnesses.
Some of the younger patients are athletes from diverse cultural and social backgrounds. Many have overcome setbacks or disadvantage to flourish in sport, often with the support of a mentor or their community. The everyday challenges of training are tough and disappointments and injuries are more frequent than the ultimate goal of a medal, yet they relish every step of training and all the effort and sweat. Their inner sense of wellbeing grows as they learn to master their own potential and, simultaneously, they grow as members of a community in sport.
Athletes eat, sleep and breathe their sport, but they also take time with youth groups, presenting motivational talks and sometimes volunteering and coaching; and whatever event they attend, it’s with an aura of wellbeing and self-worth that appears to be infectious.
This past winter was long and cold.
I had a call from an elderly patient who lives alone after the death of her husband, is living with cancer and recently suffered a fall.
“I really couldn’t be bothered this week. But I had to do my exercises because the physio was coming. And because I’ve done those, now he says I can drive again to meet my friends for a cup of tea… Do you think I might be able to try the gym?"
Her physiotherapist had focused on wellbeing, not just rehabilitation for a broken arm, and suddenly purpose and possibilities were bringing colour back into her life.
We live in a time when we’re more connected than ever; doctors see patients face-to-face but also by phone and video call. Most of us spend many hours a day on a screen making connections all over the world, but loneliness and mental illness remain widespread.
Our own wellbeing can be boosted by investing time in activities we enjoy and also those which challenge us, developing our health and happiness. Friends, family and mentors can help us reach our goals and this can be mutually beneficial. And then we too can share our enthusiasms – whether in sport, social activities or simply with our presence – reaching across generational, cultural and social divides to connect and enhance wellbeing in others.