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#DoctorsAreDickheads isn’t attacking the NHS – it’s giving it an opportunity

If you’ve been anywhere near the Twitter-verse in the past few weeks, you may have seen a lot of hullaballoo about a hashtag called #DoctorsAreDickheads.

The hashtag (which got its rolling start from disability activist Kim Saunder, off the back of a video by Stevie Boebi about her EDS and POTS diagnoses, and the endemic misunderstanding, misdiagnosis and mistreatment) allowed many people across the world, with many different disabilities (and quite a few with none), to discuss and elevate their stories of being ignored, gaslighted, abused, mistreated and even injured/killed by the medical profession. This then spawned the #HealthcareWhileColored hashtag (created by disability activist Imani Barbarin) an equally, if not more, important opportunity for people of colour (particularly black people) across the world to broadcast the very specific difficulties and abuses that institutional racism in healthcare inflicts upon them.

These hashtags were framed by seemingly endless stories of the horrific mistreatment of autistic people and people with learning disabilities in the UK; from Oliver McGowan, an autistic young man with learning disabilities who was given an anti-psychotic drug (that he had reacted badly to in the past, and that he and his parents pleaded with the doctors not to administer) and died due to the adverse reaction, to Bethany, a teenage girl with PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance, understood by many to sit on the autistic spectrum) who has been locked in what is essentially solitary confinement at an Assessment and Treatment Unit (ATU) for eighteen months (her family is only able to communicate with her through a window). There have been many others that have been reported on, and no doubt many thousands more who have not garnered the same level of attention.

Within this context, the hashtags #DoctorsAreDickheads and #HealthcareWhileColored are important and pertinent outlets in which patients can feel empowered to share their stories and (hopefully) work towards a conclusion that stops these abuses.

There were, however, backlashes against these movements, particularly in regards to #DoctorsAreDickheads. Many people expressed dismay at the ‘attack’ on those working in the medical profession – much was said about the long hours, hard work, and traumatic experiences that many people who choose that career go through. There were attempts to pick up #SomeDoctorsAreDickheads or #DoctorsCanBeDickheads as an alternative. Some people, particularly those who work in medicine, were so upset by it that they set up their own hashtag: #PatientsAreDickheads (a childish and unnecessary response that ignores the obvious differences in power and effect between doctors and patients).

All of these arguments against the hashtag overlooked a very important point – that suddenly, what patients had been saying for years, was being thrust into the mainstream and discussed. The point of a hashtag like #DoctorsAreDickheads is that it gives people a voice. It gives people an outlet to scream and to finally be heard. Criticisms of the language typified the sort of tone policing and respectability politics that have led to odious people with odious opinions gaining platforms; the idea that if it’s said nicely, whatever the content, it can be heard, but that marginalised people swearing in frustration is reason enough to shut them down (‘No, We Won’t Calm Down – Tone Policing Is Just Another Way to Protect Privilege’ by Robot Hugs at Everyday Feminism)

I’ve also seen #DoctorsAreDickheads described as ‘hashtag activism at it’s most ineffectual’. When considering that, for many people using the tag, social media is the only accessible avenue through which to engage in activism (because we’re freaking disabled), this is not only a highly ableist comment but shows the fundamental disregard for disabled voices that the hashtag is rallying against.

Yes, disabled people are aware that ‘not all’ doctors are dickheads. But, if you are a doctor who doesn’t think you’re a dickhead, you should take a seat and listen, to make sure that you aren’t and to better recognise and call out those who are. For the same reason that ‘straight pride’ and ‘all lives matter’ are bogus concepts, ‘not all doctors’ ignores the fundamental power imbalance that faces people seeking medical treatment. The decisions a doctor makes can change a person’s life on a permanent basis. They can be killed, injured, neglected, ignored, and, if they argue, have their ‘non-compliance’ permanently noted on their records so that they can be ignored and abused by other healthcare professionals in the future. This is often based on deeply engrained preudices such as racism (hence, #HealthcareWhileColored is a vital addition). A patient does not have that kind of power over their doctor’s lives.

Everyone makes mistakes, but, as with police brutality, a ‘mistake’ in this area is not something to brush under the carpet. It should not be a crap-shoot whether or not people get the care they need. They should not have to hope that they get the ‘not a dickhead’ doctor this time, to make sure they don’t die or be permanently injured. And whilst this is still happening at all, let alone on such a large scale, I will continue to proclaim that #DoctorsAreDickheads.

And, as long as the backlash continues to create a stir, the hashtag will continue to be the best tool at getting our stories out there. Because god knows, we tried being polite, and if this is the way to get your attention, we’ll do what works.

Interestingly, the backlash seemed particularly focused within the UK, something that was picked up on and discussed at some length by disability activists. One of the main theories was that people in the UK are more unquestioningly respectful of authority figures and more entwined in the tendrils of respectability politics.

But, as someone who exists within UK socialist spaces and disability activism, I think I have an answer as to why we have had a very particular backlash from the left of politics.

As leftists in the UK, we are in constant battle to defend our National Health Service. We see the creeping tendrils of privatisation, the underhanded deals at the table,  and have an understandable cage of protectiveness when it comes to anything relating to the NHS.

This year, in particular, was the 70th anniversary of the NHS. Amongst the celebrations, the occasion ignited an even more fervent campaign to defend and protect the institution. There were marches, protests and rallies to save the NHS from chronic underfunding and quiet privatisation; as one of the key socialist achievements of the 20th century, it is something that we are incredibly proud of, particularly as we sit in the audience to the plight of others in countries without socialised medicine.

Despite the NHS being an inherent socialist undertaking, however, there is a history of failure to recognise disability activism in leftist circles. As an autistic socialist, I find myself confronted with left-wing ableism on an almost daily basis: from using ableist terminology to mock right-wing figures, or condemning internet activists as ‘slacktivists’, all the way to not making their spaces and activism accessible for disabled people and supporting policies (particularly recent climate policies) that harm disabled people (and then ignoring disabled activists when they raise the issue).

It’s this that we see in the #DoctorsAreDickheads backlash: the collision of leftist defensiveness over the NHS and their unfortunate history of not-really-listening to the disabled people in their ranks.

The hashtag has been viewed, by many of these people, as an attack on the NHS that must be rebuked. Any criticism of the NHS will not be tolerated, because, in their minds, we must protect the NHS at all costs. And that’s a viewpoint that I understand – understand, but dispute.

Admitting the failings and abuses that exist within the NHS is not complicit with destroying it completely. In fact, it’s an integral part of ensuring its survival.

If we are to save and protect the NHS, then we need to acknowledge how it can be better. We need to identify and tackle problems, abuses and bigotry when they arise with honesty and transparency. Otherwise how will the NHS become the best it can be?

The truth is that people have been hurt by some of the inner workings and biases of the NHS. Not all doctors, nurses and healthcare workers are good. There are people, particularly those who live with chronic illness or have developmental or learning disabilities, particularly those who are also marginalised (women, people of colour), who have died as a result of the actions (or inactions) of people who should have been giving them healthcare.

#DoctorsAreDickheads was in-your-face and direct because it needed to be. Patients are often powerless in the face of decisions made by doctors, their pleas and activism ignored or silenced. This hashtag achieved something that hadn’t happened before – it got people to sit up and take notice of what patients were saying. Now, people were actually talking about abuse in the NHS. And, although there was a backlash, many medical professionals took these criticisms to heart and promised to do better.

Defenders of the NHS have a noble goal, and they must be supported. But they must also support disabled people in their fight against abuse: against the misdiagnosis, the silencing, the mistreatment of people with developmental and learning disabilities, the scandal of ATUs and the protection (legal and social) of medical professionals who harm their patients. Socialists need to  recognise that many disabled activists are a part of the fight to save the NHS, despite their bad experiences, and that their voices need to be listened to.

Talking about these things is not an attack on the NHS. Those who speak out about it are not in collusion with those who would see socialised medicine torn down. In fact, many of us are the very people who would be the most harmed should the NHS fall. The NHS is under attack, but it is not by disabled people and their concerns. The very things that threaten the NHS, private companies and a government that leaves it deliberately underfunded, are the very things that drive and enable the abuses of the vulnerable to continue.

On the official 70th anniversary of the NHS, I tweeted about Oliver McGowan, linked to his mother, Paula’s, petition to make autism and learning disability training mandatory on the NHS, and spoke about how the NHS needed to do better because I knew it could be better.

The sentiments that lie behind #DoctorsAreDickheads and #HealthcareWhilstBlack, as well as the crusades of Paula McGowan and Bethany’s dad, should not be seen as harmful to the NHS. Instead, they should be seen as an opportunity to listen to patients, listen to disability activists, and instigate reform that could change the NHS for the better. The people standing (or sitting) on the rooftops are shouting for something better. They are looking for justice, but they are also looking for conversation, discussion and action.

If we got your attention by calling doctors dickheads, then we have achieved our first goal. Now, you have the opportunity to enact real change that could cement the safety of the NHS for years to come.

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