Word of the day: tipping point

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I don’t know about you, but I love the game Jenga. I mean, what’s not to like? It has everything you could want from a game: the luck of finding that loose piece you can easily move; the skill of having a steady hand; but most of all the anticipation of the sudden crash. We build the tower and it begins to lean until it reaches that point where it all tips over. It’s that same sense of anticipation that makes penny drop arcade games so tempting. You can see all those coins just ready to tip over the edge – just one more and a whole load will fall, you tell yourself as you pour more money in. I guess this is why people continue to invest in businesses despite slow growth – they ARE growing and you can see that with just a little more investment they could be huge … or not, of course!

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This is the idea behind what we generally call a tipping point –  it’s the point at which a trend that’s been slowly growing suddenly becomes a full-blown disaster which is out of control or, of course, a phenomenal success that makes someone’s fortune.

Sadly for us, the tipping point that has been in the news here over the last few weeks is connected to the crisis in the National Health Service (NHS) and social care. There’s always increased pressure on health services during the winter, but this year it seems to be particularly bad here. The pressure comes from a variety of sources. The population in the UK is slowly ageing and so the demand for health services is growing, but funding from government isn’t keeping pace with demand. In many ways. the NHS is very efficient, but the government believes it can save even more money by improving efficiency.

As a result, a report yesterday revealed that most hospitals had over 85% of their hospital beds filled – and many had over 95% occupied. Why is 85% a significant number? Well, it’s the tipping point at which hospitals start finding problems: they can’t keep the hospital clean enough; they can’t find a bed for new patients, who might have to wait for hours on stretchers in a corridor; they have to cancel operations because there are no free beds for patients when they come out of surgery, which in turn means very highly-paid surgeons end up just sitting around doing nothing! The problem is made worse by the fact that there are insufficient places and a lack of money for social care. For example, an old person who goes into hospital for an operation may not be able to go home on their own, because they have dementia or other problems. So they have to wait for a place in a residential home or to arrange help in their own house. Which means they are taking up a bed, which adds to the problems that all just become part of a vicious circle.

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Looking on the Web, it seems that most news items on tipping points are negative, but maybe that’s a reflection of the news! On the other hand, Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, gives plenty of examples of related success stories, such as how a series of books with a small British publisher moved from modest initial sales for the first book to become the biggest seller in the world, with queues of people waiting in bookstores on the first day of each new publication.

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Want to learn more with Lexical Lab? Come and do one of our summer school courses in London.

  • What other things do you think are currently reaching a tipping point in politics, business or entertainment?
  • Do you like Jenga? What other games do you like playing and why?
  • Do you have any similar problems in healthcare to those described above?
  • Are you a Harry Potter fan? Which books do you like best?
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