“Is that a coincidence?”: Exploring health perceptions and the causal attributions of physical health conditions in British nuclear test veterans

Reference: Collett, G., Martin, W., Young, W. R., & Anderson, R. M. (2022). “Is that a coincidence?”: Exploring health perceptions and the causal attributions of physical health conditions in British nuclear test veterans. SSM-Qualitative Research in Health, 100127.

Background to research

There have been claims that the health of British nuclear test veterans (BNTVs) and the health of their descendants has been affected by ionizing radiation exposure. At the time of this study, there had been no evidence to suggest an increased risk of cancer incidence or mortality in this veteran population. However, outside of the British nuclear testing context, health conditions such as cancer, cataracts, and cardiovascular and circulatory diseases had been associated with ionizing radiation exposure but at doses higher than what most BNTVs are recorded as having experienced. Interestingly, these health conditions are also age-related.

What did the research involve?

We conducted interviews with 19 British nuclear test veterans. The interview topics were broad and focused on health perceptions and the psychological impact of the tests (the latter has been described in a separate article). The interview recordings were transcribed, and the transcriptions were analysed using thematic analysis which generates themes across the interviews to best capture the data.

What were the research questions?

The key research question was to understand how BNTVs, with varying health conditions, perceive their health and understand the causes of health conditions in themselves and in their family members, in the light of being an aged cohort and their previous involvement in nuclear weapons testing.

What did we find?

There was a broad sense of luck across the interviews, with most participants perceiving themselves as lucky regarding their own health and their family’s health. This generally related to their involvement in the tests but also the general ageing process.

Most participants understood their health conditions by understanding what was ‘normal’ for one's age, gender, lifestyle, and family history. This was often done by comparing themselves with other BNTVs or similarly-aged others.

There were some discussions about healthcare experiences. The medical uncertainty regarding the causes of health conditions complicates the experiences with healthcare providers, especially in the context of nuclear weapons testing. A few BNTVs indicated dissatisfaction at healthcare providers suggesting their health conditions are caused by ageing due to the perception that it was an ‘easy’ explanation. We highlight that understanding the patients (i.e. the nuclear test veterans) narrative and beliefs about their health condition would likely have improved both patient satisfaction and the patient-clinician relationship.

Who did this research?

Researchers in CHRC.
This work was, in part, supported by the Nuclear Community Charity Fund (NCCF) through funds received by The Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust under the Aged Veterans Fund Grant AVF16 and Brunel University London.

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Supporting Resources

Key Messages

The veterans understood their health conditions by considering what was ‘normal’ for one's age, gender, lifestyle, and family history.

The feeling of luck was pertinent regarding the ageing process and their involvement in the British nuclear testing programme.

The medical uncertainty regarding what causes health conditions (i.e. Is it age? Is it ionizing radiation? Or is it lifestyle?) might complicate the veterans’ experiences with healthcare providers.

The healthcare experience may have been improved by clinicians understanding the context and listening to veterans’ beliefs or perceptions about their health conditions or symptoms. General practitioners may use these findings to inform their practice with similar populations.


Links to the research paper

This is a peer-reviewed study meaning that other scientists have reviewed this work before the authors published it in SSM-Qualitative Research in Health in 2022.