UK hospitals are dangerous places to find yourself as an inpatient.  At least, that’s what the official figures tell us.

Hospitals: home of preventable medical injuries

In fact, it is in a hospital where we experience our greatest risk of unnecessary death – from what are known as ‘preventable medical injuries’.  That doesn’t mean dying of the ailment that brought you to the hospital in the first place; it means dying as a result of a blunder or other preventable problem.  That might include the wrong medication, a surgical error or a hospital-borne infection.  Official UK statistics reveal that around 330,000 die in this way every year, putting this cause of death roughly on par with that from dying following active service with the British military in the Middle East.

In a presentation given in Sydney, Australia, in 2001, by previous head of Controls Assurance at the Department of Health, it was conceded that around 850,000 medical errors occur in National Health Service (NHS) hospitals each year.  These in turn result in 40,000 unnecessary deaths and “other harm”.

Hospital admission is preventable too

Appreciating that once you are admitted to hospital you are exposed to a range of serious risks is one thing.  But why are so many admitted to hospital?  Among the major reasons are heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity, presently the diseases which place the greatest burden on Western healthcare systems.  When you factor in that these diseases are regarded by leading health authorities, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), as “largely preventable”, we have to accept that most of our suffering and ill-fate in hospitals is not only unnecessary – but also avoidable.

Who’s to blame?

However you look at it, it’s tough to apportion responsibility or blame for this dire situation.  Unsurprisingly, therefore, consensus is rare.  Some argue that the state and healthcare professions should educate the population on how to eat healthy diets and live healthy lifestyles that minimise our risk of chronic disease.  Others argue that that is the responsibility of the individual.  For many people, finding the advice that’s relevant to them is a huge challenge.  Still others say it shouldn’t be up to the public to find the answers, and that the information should be readily available from the NHS.

The elusive ‘healthy diet and lifestyle’

Compounding matters further, there is no general agreement on what makes for a healthy diet and lifestyle.  Even the basic tenets of what constitutes a healthy diet are the subject of much discussion and disagreement.  The US Food Pyramid, for example, has had to be altered several times following new discoveries in the field of nutritional science, and was replaced with the ‘MyPlate’ in 2011.  Even the UK’s ‘Eatwell plate’, proposed as public guidance for what constitutes healthy eating by the Department of Health and the NHS, is not accepted as appropriate by many UK nutritional practitioners.

Echoing a commonly held criticism of the Eatwell plate, Meleni Aldridge, a qualified nutritional practitioner and executive coordinator of ANH-Intl, says, “It’s clearly a compromise worked out to appease Big Food interests.  Nearly 60% of the food recommended for daily consumption is unnecessary for good health, namely starchy carbs, milk and dairy foods, and drinks high in fat and/or sugar.  To the contrary, these foods are centrally involved in the current epidemics of obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.  There are large numbers of people who benefit greatly from taking these foods out of their diets and replacing them with vegetables, high quality protein sources and fruits – the kinds of food humans have evolved alongside over millennia.”

Open wide...

It’s a big and bitter pill to swallow if we accept that the advice we’re being given by our governments is a recipe for making us ill in later life.  And it’s hardly comforting that we might get unnecessarily harmed or killed if we turn to the healthcare system in an attempt to manage the diseases we contract after a lifetime’s worth of inappropriate eating and lifestyle,  But there is no escaping that these are the harsh realities we

Call to action: some simple solutions

So what do we do?  Many thousands of us are, of course, doing what we need to do – many of you will be reading this article because you have decided to take responsibility for your own health!  And this is, of course, the key.  Since factors including our genetic makeup, life circumstances, present levels of health and fitness and availability of time and funds vary greatly between different people, how we take things into our own hands will also vary greatly.  But there are some general – and very simple – guidelines:

  1. Don’t accept blindly what your doctor or your government tells you is best for you
  2. Eat a varied diet comprised largely of unprocessed foods, including a plentiful supply of vegetables (3–4 portions/day) and fruit (2–3 portions/day), some of which should be raw, and which should be of different colours to ensure adequate phytonutrients are consumed.  Remember: eat a rainbow everyday!
  3. Minimise or eliminate highly processed and refined carbohydrates from your diet, replacing them with vegetables and salads.  Minimise or avoid milk and dairy products, particularly if you know you are sensitive to them in larger quantities
  4. Consume high-quality protein sources and healthy fats, such as fish, lean meats, or vegetarian protein sources containing vegetables like peas, beans or pulses
  5. Don’t smoke and don’t drink alcohol to excess.  Drink 1.5 litres of water daily, or more if you are exercising strenuously
  6.  Be physically active (heart rate raised to at least 55% of its maximum) for at least one hour every day.  Resistance training should be included at least 3 times a week.

If your doctor has already given you advice along these lines, then you are among a tiny minority and you’ve almost certainly found yourself a good ‘un!  Help those around you to adopt a similar approach, acknowledging in the process that good health is one of the ultimate forms of individual empowerment.