Should the NHS do more to encourage patients to use metric?

Sometimes, the NHS needs to measure patients’ weight and height. The NHS records their weight and height internally in metric units but often tells the patients their weight and height in imperial units, which is preferred by the vast majority of Britons. This requires conversions. During the pandemic, the Government used metres exclusively for social distancing information. We use grams and kilograms for recipes, food purchases and the gym. We are all familiar with these units. So why does the NHS convert from metres to feet and inches and from kilograms to stones and pounds for its patients?

I few weeks ago, I went to my local surgery for a general health check-up. At the surgery, I noticed a height ruler with metres and centimetres on one side and feet and inches on the other side. I also saw a weighing machine with a switch that converts from kilograms to stones and pounds. The doctor asked me to take off my shoes and stand straight on the scale to measure my height. She told me that I am 1 metre 80½ centimetres tall. After telling me my height in metric units, the doctor immediately converted it to feet and inches. She told me that I was 5 feet 11 inches. I understood the height measurement in metric units and did not ask for any conversion, but the doctor gave me one anyway. She also weighed me and told me that I weigh 95.5 kilograms. Interestingly, she gave me no conversion in stones and pounds. I didn’t need one in any case and have no complaints about that. I am pleased that she felt no need to give a conversion. I understood the weight measurement perfectly well.

It is enough to know your weight and height in one measurement system. There is no need to know this in two measurement systems. What do we often use two measurement systems to measure the same thing?

One problem with unit conversions is rounding errors. Heights expressed in feet and inches tend to be rounded to the nearest inch. Given that there are approximately 2½ centimetres to an inch, an imperial height conversion could be over 1 cm out. Weights expressed in stones and pounds tend to be rounded to the nearest pound. Given that there are 454 grams to a pound, an imperial weight conversion could be over 0.2 kg out. When you convert the imperial units back to metric, you may not get the original values in metric units. Therefore, the imperial figures given to a patient may not correspond to the NHS official records. Stick to metric and the rounding problem disappears.

It is worth asking the question that forms the title of this blog article again: Should the NHS do more to encourage patients to use metric? Metric Views is interested to hear readers’ measurement experiences in the NHS.

8 thoughts on “Should the NHS do more to encourage patients to use metric?”

  1. Cannot comment on the NHS since I live in the USA (with our disastrous non-healthcare privatized system) but I am surprised you were told your height as “1 metre 80½ centimetres”, which mimics the Imperial breakdown separately into “feet” and “inches”.

    I would assume the “native metric” number would be either 1.85 meters or 185 centimeters. Still some education needed there as well, it seems, when it comes to thinking fully in metric.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Of course they shouldn’t be converting at all and people should just know it in metric. The reason why imperial has lingered on for so long in the UK is because there is a tendency to stick with what people know, rather than getting them use to the new system. Voluntary gradualism if you like. As opposed to other countries that managed to get it largely done and dusted within a timeframe of about ten years.

    It is a self-fulfilling prophecy and ultimately creates an unnecessary distinction between professional and public life. With road signs being the most egregious example of it. As long as road signs are in miles people aren’t going to get use to kilometres and so you claim that is what people are use to and continue to perpetuate it. It is a similar story with the media and things such as the medical profession. Hence why it is taken so long for this stone unit to finally die, despite it not being used anywhere else or for anything else for that matter.

    If the media and medical profession conversed in metres and kg. People would be more likely to quickly get use to it rather than persisting with reverting it back into inefficient old fashioned units.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ezra,

    1 m 80.5 cm is not the same as 185 cm, it is the same as 1805 mm. If the nurse meant 185 cm and read it as 180.5 cm, then this nurse shouldn’t be allowed to practice medicine.

    But, what is even more surprising, if this so-called nurse was supposedly educated in metric units in both elementary school and nursing school, I would have thought she would have learned to read a metre scale correctly. Either as 180 cm or 1.80 m. The extra 0,5 is just nonsense, as one’s height can vary by a centimetre or so throughout the day.

    It’s amazing this type of ignorance is allowed to fester in such a way it can result in errors that can result in compromise to ones health.


  4. Alex M,

    This is the reason that in the better managed countries of the world, the metrication program was designed to change everything withing a sensible time period with no exceptions. So, now what happens when choices are given and half the businesses operate internally in metric and the other half in FFU? It harms the national economy when those companies using metric internally are forced to import both workers and materials from metric countries since those who insist on resisting metric are useless as employees in a metric company.

    Raw material and finished goods produced in FFU are useless to a metric company so they import and the non-metric company eventually goes bankrupt as they continue to produce products that can’t be exported nor sold to metric businesses.


  5. I think the answer to the title of this article must be a resounding ‘Yes’. Perhaps the UKMA can promote that objective. The doctor or nurse does not rely on the height and weight information given by the patient, either in metric units or old-fashioned imperial. They weigh the patient and measure their height to make an accurate determination of those figures on the day the patients attends, if that information is needed. There is absolutely no necessity to convert the metric weight and height back into the old-fashioned units for the patient. If a patient who on their last visit weighed 70 kg has put on, say, 5 kg since their last visit, the increase is not going to be more meaningful in old-fashioned units. It is going to be 70 + 5 kg. Surely any patient can understand that? It was 70 and now it’s 75. And remember it. It is no more difficult to remember one’s weight in kilograms than it is in any other units. And it is the weight in kilograms that interests the NHS.


  6. Yes is the correct answer.
    NHS is second to D(a)fT for being the worst offender in this respect. More life or death issues if misunderstandings go wrong.
    Offending is the operative word when, as other comments above, they ‘correct’ my metric with some stupid units I have been trying to eradicate from my brain for over 50 years. It even sends my blood pressure up so it is irrelevant anyway.


  7. Ronnie, not only have I had the same experience as you, but my height and weight are very similar to yours giving both of us a BMI of about 30. Maybe we should both do something about our weights! B TW, the BMI is not a dimensionless number but has the units of kilograms per square metre.

    What should the NHS be doing to encourage people to use the same units that they use internally? One way would be for the medical practitioner to always use metric units buy for conversion charts to be available for the taking at the receptionist’s desk (ie, no need to ask). People could take a copy as they leave and do their own conversion. I Am sure that within a few months. very few people would be taking copies.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The problem is that weight (and height) as used by the NHS is a means to an end, namely to formulate the correct dosage of medicine to be prescribed and the usage is all metric. The metric weight is not the end in itself and medical staff rightly have other things on their mind rather than getting the patient to know his or her weight in kilograms. So the issue goes round and round and never escapes the vortex it is in. These conversions for patients back to imperial units rather reminds me of the time when the Celsius (then the Centigrade) temperature scale replaced Fahrenheit. Back then too weather forecasters would often convert to ‘old money’ for the viewer but I seem to think that they stopped doing that after a few years (though we still hear it creeping in again now, especially when it gets hot). Remove the prop and the individual will quickly adapt to the new units. This is why the voluntary process of changing to metric has not really worked. It has to be pushed through and the old units have to be taken out of circulation.


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