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Take care

'The word "blood" has symbolic significance in many different spheres' says Caroline Berry in her precise piece on the importance of haemoglobin. And, as a geneticist who has spent her life in science, it's no surprise to see that the language in her article is rather different to what might have been used by those of us more familiar with the arts and humanities.

This culture shock mirrors what happens when many of us are confronted with ill-health and (for most of us) the NHS. From the names of diseases and parts of the body to the specialties of various consultants, it can be a bewildering and alienating world. Caring for children or the elderly becomes paediatrics or geriatrics. Staff are uniformed and patients are tagged.

This distancing effect is welcomed by some. It means we can dump everything nasty in a box marked 'In science we trust', a world in which - though our knowledge of how they work is scanty - there are experts and laboratories and an accumulation of hundreds of years of research. People who exist to 'deal with' our problems.

We put a considerable amount of faith in this system, and we are right to. The clinical approach to physical wellbeing has garnered huge advances, saving many lives. While it may at times seem cold, few of us would opt for a world without it.

But these advances can only be made when directed by a set of values that put human flourishing at the heart of any health agenda. For years we have been able to assume that this has been so - and of course it still is in the vast majority of cases. Of late, however, we have begun to see a crisis building in the care of the vulnerable. The recent Panorama revelations exceeded even our worst fears about residential care homes. In allowing ourselves to become separated from the perplexing world of the medical, we have forgotten that science is a tool, not a moral conclusion. The preservation of life is still - mostly - a given. But its dignity is arrived at with the other tools at our disposal. 'Who is my grandmother?' someone might once have asked Jesus.

With the coalition government's wish to see the public take over some services currently run by the state, it might be tempting for some to refuse any involvement in such care, in case it be seen as a sign of support. And we should certainly demand a closing of the loophole whereby private care homes can ignore human rights legislation since they are not public bodies. But why must our only interaction with the vulnerable be institutional? Again and again the Bible reminds us not merely of our duty to those who need the most help, but that it is among them that we are most likely to find God. It is where we should be.