Author: Giskin Day

I am a senior teaching fellow in the Centre for Co-Curricular Studies at Imperial College London. I teach medical humanities and communicating science, and co-ordinate the Science, Culture & Society field of courses within the Imperial Horizons programme.

Patients queue to thank GP Richard Hughes

Patients queued for hours to thank Dr Richard Hughes on his retirement. Image: The Mirror

This is a lovely story of how patients queued for hours to thank Dr Richard Hughes on his retirement. An ‘event’ such as retirement provides a focal point for gratitude – it seems a shame that many doctors receive a show of appreciation only at the end of their careers. One of the characteristics of the way we express gratitude, in Western societies at least, is that it often signifies the ‘closure’ of a particular transaction. (The word ‘transaction’ here seems freighted with economic meaning, rather unfortunately, but the rhetoric of gratitude is saturated with economic metaphors.) This closing shapes the framing of the act of gratitude as a ‘reward’ for past service: in terminis res, as it were, rather than in medias res.

Introducing the Rhetoric of Gratitude project

This poster from the 1920s, displayed at the Royal Brompton hospital, reminds patients of their ‘duty’ of gratitude.

The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK has come in for increasing criticism over the past few years, both from within and without the system. Newspaper reports tell of neglected patients and money-grubbing GPs, and concerns about a target-driven culture, privitasation and staffing levels create an impression of a system at breaking point. Yet, the NHS is a cherished institution about which many feel passionately defensive. One of the drivers of morale in a beleaguered NHS is the gratitude that patients express in a myriad of ways, almost all of which are informal.