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Film / Threads

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"You cannot win a nuclear war."

"In an urban society, everything connects. Each person's needs are fed by the skills of many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric. But the connections that make society strong, also make it vulnerable."
Opening narration

Threads, a 1984 docudrama produced by The BBC, is the United Kingdom's answer to America's The Day After (which came a year earlier). Britain has quite the history of post-apocalyptic fiction on its DVD and book shelves, and Threads is amongst the most disturbing examples.

The film depicts the terrifying consequences of nuclear warfare upon an unsuspecting world. Set mainly in Sheffield during the height of the Cold War, Threads follows two families, the Becketts and the Kemps, amongst the other members of their town, as they deal with the absolute destruction of their society as a result of nuclear war with the Soviet Union (which at the time of release was somewhat more likely than it is today). The findings of the 1955 Strath Report noted that the UK was singularly vulnerable to a nuclear exchange due to the country's location, small size, high urban population, and dependency upon food imports.note  The film reflects this fairly accurate assessment of the UK's likely situation with what the uninformed might call a hopeless and pessimistic outset - ending with a medieval world where agriculture predominates, starvation is ever-present, modern medicine doesn't exist, martial law prevails, capital punishment is routine, children are undereducated savages, the ozone layer is gone, and Survival Of The Fittest is the only way to get by.


To any would-be viewers: if you're looking for a story with a happy or hopeful ending this movie is not the way to go, and a strong stomach is pretty much mandatory. There are no jump scares, the Body Horror is tame by the standards of modern SFX, and there is little Gornnote  despite the ample opportunities the setting presents. Yet its strict adherence to a realistic portrayal of nuclear war and its after-effects makes it one of the scariest films ever made.

See also The War Game, Sometime Never: A Fable for Supermen, When the Wind Blows, and The Road.


This film provides examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: Intended for the 1980s, this particular scenario seemed very likely right up until the ending of the Cold War. This article by Colonel Sam Gardiner details how escalation and counter-escalation similar to what happened in Threads could result in an India-Pakistan nuclear war. Fortunately, after the crisis in 2002 both sides seem to respect the gravity of the situation a bit more.
    • While the exact year is left ambiguous, a quick check of the days and dates in the film places the events in the year 1988 with the ending taking place around the year 2001.
      • The dates are also consistent with 1983, which would also imply that the film is set in a very believable Alternate History.
  • After the End: The second half of the film documents the first 13 years after the bombs fall. It's not a happy time.
  • Aliens in Cardiff: As The Day After nuked the American heartland, a lot of the shock for local residents where the film was set was seeing Sheffield blown up and irradiated.
  • Alternate History: While the exact year in which the film takes place is (deliberately) left ambiguous, the dates in the film are consistent with 1983, which is around the time the film would have been written, so could infer that the film is set in an alternate 1983 in which a nuclear war took place. This would set the film's ending somewhere around 1996.
  • Angry Guard Dog: Ruth has to get past one guarding a barn so she can have her baby under shelter.
  • Anyone Can Die: Played Straight; most do. Though it's not always clear who dies, which probably is intentional. Jimmy's sister Allison may be the young blonde woman glimpsed at an internment camp for looting suspects several weeks later. Jimmy himself may be seen near the end of the movie with a scarred face. We just don't know.
  • Apathetic Citizens: While the news broadcasts the deteriorating situation in Iran throughout the film, the events are only paid cursory interest by anyone who's not a government official (while there are protests, they're paid little attention to by the populace). Eventually gets deconstructed as the film goes on; the citizens become increasingly aware of how bad things are getting, but still (attempt to) ignore them either because they don't wish to confront the increasing likelihood that the world is about to end, or because they feel powerless to stop it in any case.
    • The latter attitude is summed up in a scene in the pub between Jimmy and Bob. Jimmy expresses his concerns about the situation in Iran, but Bob just brushes them off because there's nothing they can do about it.
  • Apocalypse Anarchy: Widespread looting occurs in the aftermath of the attack, and all that the government (what's left of it anyway) can do about it is herd people into internment camps and shoot anyone who doesn't cooperate.
  • Apocalypse How: The movie ends somewhere between Planetary Societal Disruption and Societal Collapse (though the film mainly concentrates on its effects on Great Britain). Although the human population of the UK is reduced to medieval levels and the nuclear winter, fallout, and loss of modern infrastructure and industry has made sustaining a viable population extremely difficult, they are able to maintain a handful of more primitive tools and devices. A montage of photos suggests that after about ten years post-war Britain is capable of generating some electricity, and is able to manufacture and maintain steam-era technology. It's hinted that conditions may worsen into a Class 4 (Total Extinction), due to the effects of nuclear winter.
    • Threads was in production at the time Carl Sagan, one of the film's advisors, published The Cold and The Dark: The World After Nuclear War (expanding on his pamphlet The Nuclear Winter from 1983)—because of that, Threads takes nuclear winter into account, while The Day After (which was in production when these studies were either not conducted or not publicly available) doesn't. The Day After also only covers at most a few weeks after the war, whereas Threads covers 12-13 years (allowing for the effects of nuclear winter—and its aftermath—to be explored in more detail).
  • Auto Erotica:
    • A backseat makeout session with Jimmy and a girl he's picked up at the pub is suddenly interrupted by the movement of tanks past their car.
    • Jimmy's and Ruth's baby apparently was conceived in a car.
  • Away in a Manger: Ruth gives birth in a stable on Christmas Day, unable to reach the farmhouse because there was a guard dog in the way.
  • Bathos: One particular scene during the attack has Jimmy's father realising what's happening, all while on the lavatory, meaning he has to pull his trousers up and get ready. This is done very deliberately to provide a moment's relief while everything goes to pieces.
  • Bookends: Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" plays near the beginning and near the end of the film.
  • Break Out the Museum Piece: An antique steam traction engine is seen being used for farming.
  • Bring My Brown Pants: When the first mushroom cloud rises, a woman wets herself.
  • Bystander Syndrome: Most Britons' response to the potential of attack. One character openly says there's nothing they can do about it. An obviously angry protest not far from the Kemps' couple's house is brushed off as "the pubs letting out". They know that's not the case, but...
  • Casting Gag: One scene shows Ruth attending a rally for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Ruth's actress, Karen Meagher, was actually a member of the Campaign at the time of filming.
  • Children Are Innocent: Neither Alison (who's in her early teens) nor Michael (who's around eight to ten years old) seem aware of the seriousness of the situation. On the same morning the attack takes place, Alison responds to the news that school is cancelled with delight at the thought of missing a history test and Michael says of his family's woefully inadequate shelter:
    We'll be able to sleep in it. It'll be like going camping.
  • Crapsack World: And how. Basically, from the moment the bomb drops, nothing good happens.
  • Crisis Point Hospital:
    • The film's narration makes it clear that the lack of drugs, bandages, clean water or electricity make it just about impossible for the doctors to help anyone in the aftermath of the nuclear attack. Consequently, the hospital focussed on sixteen days after the blast is a filthy, gloomy, hopelessly-overcrowded ruin where wounded citizens queue in crushing conditions and ill-equipped surgeons are forced to improvise what little treatment they can: bandages are made from torn sheets, glass is picked from open wounds with tweezers, table salt is used in place of antibiotics, and infected limbs are sawed off without anaesthetic.
    • The makeshift hospital encountered thirteen years after the blast is, if anything, even worse. It looks like it's been assembled in what's left of a public toilet, the one attending nurse can barely bring herself to look after her patients, and the patients are given very little supervision
  • Cute Kitten: Ruth's tabby cat ...except that the kitty in question is shown writhing in agony as it suffocates/burns to death in the massive firestorm following the first bomb detonation.note 
  • Dangerous Drowsiness: In the days following the nuclear attack on Sheffield, Ruth's grandmother — already badly affected by shock — begins sleeping through mealtimes, and though Mr and Mrs Beckett believe that rest will do her some good, it's obvious that she's ailing. The very next scene with Becketts features her body being hauled out of the fallout shelter by her grieving relatives.
  • Dead-Hand Shot: Numerous bodies sticking out of rubble, many burned beyond recognition.
  • Death by Irony: Ruth's parents are in an excellent position to survive the war. They take shelter in the basement of their sturdily built house, which is fairly far from the epicenter of the nearest blast, and they have ample provisions. But then a group of looters break into their house and murder them.
  • Death from Above: The modus operandi of ICBMs.
  • Death Trap: As soon as things start looking hairy, the Sheffield emergency council meets in the converted basement of the town hall. It's stocked with food, water, comm equipment and an emergency generator - pity that A-bomb had to knock down the entire building on top of the exit. The ceilingnote  holds and they can givenote  orders via phone and radio, but they're trapped with limited food, water and air. Four weeks later, a squad of soldiers finally dig their way to the bodies.
  • Denied Food as Punishment: The only viable currency becomes food, given as a reward for work or withheld as punishment.
  • Depopulation Bomb: People born after the attack are often mutated. People born before the attack don't last long in general.
  • Disaster Scavengers: Just about everyone, naturally.
  • Doomed Protagonist: Let's just say, try not to get too attached to anyone.
  • Downer Ending: At any given point after the attack, it's hard to imagine that things could get much worse. Until they do. So, just as humanity seems to have limped along into a second medieval age, narrowly avoiding the complete annihilation of the species, we are given a glimpse of the second generation of post-war babies, which decidedly quells any lingering hope viewers may have been desperately clinging to.
  • Dumb Struck: Most of the country, and presumably the rest of the world, too. The traumatized survivors of the attacks in the aftermath of the Nuclear Winter are hardly ever seen to talk.
    • Jimmy Kemp's coworker, Bob, exemplifies this during the nuclear exchange. When he first sees the mushroom cloud over RAF Finningley, all he can do is bite his thumb in shock.
    Bob: Jesus Christ, they've done it! ... ... They've done it ... !
    • Both Bob and Ruth exemplify this trait when they run into each other a few weeks after the attack. They share a meal - a rotting dead sheep - but say little, and soon go their separate ways.
  • Dying Race: Humanity after the bombs fall. Even though there are millions of survivors still left, famine, disease, and violence kill millions more. The film's final scene, of Jane giving birth to a stillborn and mutated baby, implies that birth defects from the radiation will kill off the next generation and spell the end for the human race.
  • Dystopia: The world after doomsday. Clearly, somebody is trying to enforce some semblance of order but due to the extreme nature of life on the planet, it proves difficult to do so without crossing over numerous moral boundaries, and most people are too concerned with their own safety to worry about the rest of the world anyway.
  • Easy Logistics: Averted. The attempts by the emergency council to do... well, anything at all after the attacks happen are utterly inept. They have no communications (an EMP blast from a nuke detonated over the North Sea wipes out most of their comms before the attacks even start properly, and nobody is in a situation to receive messages when there's no electricity), and attempting to move food and supplies to vital areas when all transport infrastructure has been entirely demolished and fuel supplies are diminished within days is portrayed as about as impossible as it would be.
  • The '80s: Very much a reflection of the early 1980s fear of nuclear war.
  • Emergency Broadcast: The constant runnings of "Protect And Survive" are somewhat like this.
  • EMP: A nuclear detonation over the North Sea knocks out all electricity in Britain before the country itself is hit.
  • Empathy Doll Shot: Michael's handheld video game. However, Michael's body is shown earlier in a Dead-Hand Shot.
  • Eternal English: Averted. Just 13 years after the attack, English is practically unrecognisable due to the lack of literacy and education. The English the children of the attack survivors speak has become slurred and simplified. The boys who harass Ruth's daughter Jane can only really say "Gi'sit" (give us it) and "C'mon".
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: Not even remotely funny in its execution. In fact, those who were killed instantly during the first nuclear attack got lucky.
  • Everybody Smokes: Justified, as this was The '80s and in the middle of one of the most stressful situations possible. That said, everyone in the underground shelter smoking likely led to an even faster loss of breathable air...
  • Eye Scream: When the first blast wave hits, people get glass from shattered windows in their eyes.
  • Faceless Goons: Justified as soldiers are wearing gas masks against airbourne radioactive particles and diseases. A policeman (really just a deputized traffic warden, the British equivalent of a meter maid) at the detention centre has a burn mask covering his face.
  • Fallout Shelter Fail:
    • An emergency council is assembled in the basement of Sheffield Town Hall in the hopes of managing the situation if the worst comes to the worst: the makeshift bomb shelter has food, water, a portable generator and communications equipment, so despite the confusion, the council seems well prepared. Unfortunately, when World War III does break out, the nuclear attack causes the entire town hall to collapse on top of the shelter, trapping the council inside; forced to wait until the army can dig them out, the council can only sit tight, argue frequently, and try to manage the rapidly-deteriorating situation by radio. Worse still, the blocked air vents begin to cause breathing difficulties for some of the council members. By the time the army reaches them, the entire council has suffocated to death.
    • Following government advice, the Kemps attempt to build an inner refuge out of doors and mattresses. This probably wouldn't have been much use even if they'd finished it in time, but thanks to sheer bad luck, their house is on the edge of a strike zone: the building is almost completely destroyed, rendering the inner core largely useless; Michael is instantly crushed to death in the rubble, Rita suffers fatal burns, and Bill is left to slowly die of radiation sickness.
    • By contrast, the Becketts have a basement and are lucky enough to own a house situated well outside the blast zone. Though they have to endure a death in the family and Ruth runs away from home soon after, it appears as though her parents have all the supplies they need to survive the apocalypse. Unfortunately, the one thing they skimped on was security: a gang of looters break in and murder Ruth's parents for their food.
  • A Fate Worse Than Death: So, you survived the initial bombing? Too bad for you.
    • Lampshaded by Jimmy's parents, who break down into tears as they both admit they wish they could swap places with their dead son, Michael.
  • Foreshadowing:
    Neighbour: Have you turned that gas off?
  • From Bad to Worse: Go to YouTube and you'll probably find the movie in sections. Look down the related features stills on the right side of the screen, section by section. Hint: the images do not get cheerier as you go.
  • Get-Rich-Quick Scheme: Retailers treat the whole situation before the bombs fall as one, vastly inflating prices for basic goods that the government has told people to buy, implying this will help them survive. The bombs then do fall, leaving them with money they can't use.
  • Hope Spot: One used at the very end of the film. In a hospital, we see a child being born... except there's no actual crying or any signs of life. The very last thing we see is the mother gasping in horror at what's been born, suggesting humanity may never recover properly.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Soldiers arrest some men for looting food, then gripe over the flavour of crisps they've stolen, clearly intending to eat it themselves.
  • Ignored Vital News Reports: In the opening scene Jimmy skips past a report of the Soviet invasion of Iran while trying to find a football match on the car radio.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Sort of. A family member trading cigarettes for alcohol in the aftermath of the bombing shows the first signs of the radiation sickness that will soon kill him.
  • Just Before the End: Post-nuclear Earth doesn't have a whole lot going for it.
  • The Ken Burns Effect: The photographs depicting the effects of the war on society over narration and stats.
  • Man on Fire: Mrs. Kemp catches fire during the montage of shots after Sheffield is hit by a nuke.
  • Meatgrinder Surgery: With the hospitals being completely swamped by victims of the nuking and the destruction of the power grid meaning electricity is as nonexistent as the equipment, the doctors are as inept as any other bystander in treating wounds and burns and resort to operating on still-conscious patients- including children.
  • No Ending: The film ends abruptly with Jane being handed the deformed corpse of her stillborn baby; see Downer Ending above. However, there's also no real dénouement, and there's not really supposed to be.
  • Not-So-Omniscient Council of Bickering: The Sheffield emergency council falls to this after the bombs drop. They spend more time shouting and yelling at each other than they do trying to pick up the pieces.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • "Attack Warning Red. Attack Warning Red." Cue one of the councillors: "It's for bloody real!"
    • As the first mushroom cloud rises, the whole country goes into outright panic, and one woman in particular is overcome with fear to the point of wetting herself.
    • During production, a smoke bomb was used to simulate the mushroom, actually (But accidentally) causing panic in the area near the set.
  • Please Wake Up: Zigzagged with Jane, who is seen trying to rouse her dying mother. However, once Ruth has actually died, Jane, after shaking her one more time, quickly realises Ruth isn't going to get up and calmly walks away as though nothing has happened. It's unclear if Jane's apparent lack of grief is due to damage to the area of her brain which processes emotion, or the fact that she has seen death so often that it doesn't have any impact on her. Either way, the only belongings of Ruth's which Jane takes with her are things which have a practical use, a scarf and a hairbrush.
    • The scene with the woman and the charred baby inverts this trope. The woman in question isn't trying to rouse her baby, but it's clear that she's shell-shocked to the point where she doesn't realise the child is dead.
  • Police Brutality: The police are shown violently breaking up an anti-war protest early in the film. After the attacks, British military police use tear gas to disperse survivors demanding food and shoot anyone who doesn't run away.
  • Potty Failure: This happens in a memorable shot, as noted above.
    • The film's narrator also notes that in the initial stages after the bombing, the symptoms of panic and radiation sickness are the same. To illustrate this we are shown Ruth's mother asking her to come and help clean her grandmother, who has soiled herself in fear.
  • Public Service Announcement: The film was made disturbingly realistic by using genuine public information films. During the 1970s, these films would have been publicly disseminated in anticipation of national emergency, concerning what measures to take in the event of nuclear war. Threads demonstrated in horrific detail how fatally ineffective they'd be.
  • Rapid Aging: Ruth in her 30s looks like an old woman due to the ravages of radiation and UV light.
  • Reduced to Ratburgers: In one of the post-nuclear war scenes, juxtaposed against a Standard Life insurance company ad for Irony. To make matters worse, Ruth apparently traded sexual favors for a few dead rats.
  • Scavenger World: The world after the bombs. There appears to be some semblance of agriculture and education, but it's nowhere near enough to make serious progress towards rebuilding society.
  • Scenery Based Societal Barometer: The Council Bunker often serves as a measure of the current state of society and the government. It seems fairly orderly at first - but it soon becomes clear that most of the committee have no idea what they're doing, much like the rest of the city. Then, once the bomb hits, the town hall collapses on top of the bunker, leaving the council trapped inside (killing one of them, mirroring the many casualties aboveground). As the weeks go by and the situation gets worse, the bunker becomes progressively messier: dirty plates pile up, empty packets of cigarettes cover the tables, buckets are hastily set up under the leaking roof, and the clothes of the council members grow rumpled and dirty. More worryingly, with the vents blocked by several thousand tons of rubble, air quality drops lower and lower, leaving several council members collapsed against the wall. By the time anyone arrives to rescue them, the council has long since suffocated to death; from here on, society has reached the point of no return and is controlled entirely by the decaying remains of the military.
  • Scenery Gorn: Much of the harrowing atmosphere of the film comes from the devastated urban landscapes and barren, frozen countryside.
  • Screaming Birth: Subverted horrifically at the end with Jane's stillborn, mutated child.
  • Serial Escalation: The escalation scenario that leads to Armageddon in the first place. After a coup in Iran, the Soviet Union invades to gain a toehold in the Middle East. The Americans send in paratroopers and set a deadline for withdrawal, and when the Soviets don't back down they send bombers after their main staging base in Iran. The Soviets destroy most of the aircraft with a nuclear-tipped air defense missile. The Americans then destroy the base with a single battlefield nuke. In return the Soviets nuke the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, the Americans blockade Cuba, and after that it gets kind of hazy...
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: The last scene is the birth of a severely deformed, stillborn infant, and Jane's look of horror when she realizes it. That is humanity's future in Britain, and probably the world as well.
  • Shown Their Work: Thanks to the army of scientific advisers (including Carl Sagan) listed in the end credits. The only really dodgy bit of science is the implied permanent destruction of the ozone layer as a result of the nuclear exchange (it should regenerate itself over time in the absence of pollutants), but even this is something that scientists aren't 100% sure on.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: At the opening of the film we hear "Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry, and it reappears near the end (see Bookends). Needless to say, while at the start of the film it accompanies the imminent creation of a life - it plays right before Jimmy and Ruth conceive their baby - by the end of the film it represents the imminent destruction of all life, signified by Ruth's daughter Jane giving birth to a deformed, stillborn baby.
  • Spiritual Successor : To the very similar 1965 Docudrama The War Game — though that movie wasn't shown on TV until a year after Threads because the BBC refused to broadcast it back when it was made.
  • Spot of Tea: Mugs of tea proliferate in the council bunker; entirely justified given that this is Britain and the characters are under great stress.
  • Stock Footage: A few of the shots in the initial attack sequence such as the bottles and bus windows melting, are reused footage or B-Rolls from the QED documentary Mick Jackson directed for the BBC two years earlier, A Guide To Armageddon.
  • Storyboarding the Apocalypse: The world's narrated degeneration into chaos. Also the teletype-style printed reports. "80 megatons fall on UK."
  • Teen Pregnancy: Jane gets pregnant at thirteen via an implied rape by a fellow looter following a squabble over food.
  • Teens Are Monsters: Well, this is a British production after all; without the comforting kosh of civilisation, the kids become little more than animals, barely capable of speech.
  • This Is Not a Drill: The nuclear attack warning sirens sounding over the United Kingdom. The phrase itself comes from a boy rushing to tell his mother that they need to go home right freaking now. A similar one happens when the Sheffield emergency council hears an alarm from the HANDEL Warning Console.
    HANDEL Warning Console: Attack warning RED! Attack warning RED!
    Food Officer (Roger Fisher): Is it for real?
    Accommodation Officer: Attack warning's for bloody real!
    Clive Sutton: Right, get to your stations!
  • Too Dumb to Live: The officials who keep on smoking while trapped underground.
  • Tragic Stillbirth: At the end, Jane gives birth to a severely mutated, stillborn baby. It's especially tragic given the implications that this exact scenario is happening all over Britain, and probably worldwide.
  • Transatlantic Equivalent: The Day After.
  • Two-Faced: Jimmy's mother is partially exposed to the thermal blast wave, and half her face is burned off.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: We see Jimmy's father puking into a rag, and Ruth's dad puking in a toilet. One of them is panicking, the other has radiation sickness: take a guess.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: As the crisis deepens, the Kemps' next door neighbours (who consist of a couple, their young daughter and a small dog) try to flee to rural Lincolnshire, where the father's brother lives. Along the way, they become caught in a traffic jam which has been caused by a combination of people ignoring official advice to stay put and all major roads being closed to non-essential traffic. This is the last that is seen of them, so their fate is unknown. However, given the film's subject matter, it's not hard to guess.
  • Worthless Yellow Rocks: After the attack, money becomes worthless. Survivors conscripted to help with reconstruction are "paid" in food, which is "given as a reward for work or withheld as punishment." Some bartering is also seen, an example being when Mr. Kemp gives another man cigarettes in exchange for scotch.
  • You No Take Candle:
    • The speech we hear from the post-war children is broken and uneducated; very little effort is spent on trying to educate the new generations. (A few children are seen watching dodgy recordings of Words and Pictures educational videos, and others are getting some sort of vocational training in clothing repair, but that's about as far as it seems to go). This is a doubly tragic occurrence, as the lack of education for future generations suggests that Earth will never be able to recover on any level. Considering these kids have almost certainly suffered brain damage from early childhood malnutrition, the picture becomes even bleaker. Not to mention all of the kids (including Jane) who likely suffered brain damage because of radiation doses received in utero.
    • Jane can barely string two words together when she's attempting to speak to adults. Even with people her own age like Gaz and Spike, she has no real conversational skills; the three youngsters do exchange words, but they mostly consist of the boys demanding a share of Jane's food (and more besides, since one of them is implied to be the father of Jane's stillborn baby). Also, the post-war kids often repeat the same word or phrase over and over, as if they don't know any other way of getting their point across. This is first seen when Jane tries to rouse the dying Ruth:
      Ruth? Ruth! Work. Work. Work. Up!
  • Younger Than They Look: After the ten year timeskip, Ruth (who by that point would barely be in her thirties) has aged about forty years. This is due to the years of radiation exposure and the amplified ultra violet rays from the sun causing her to go blind.


Video Example(s):



In the aftermath of a nuclear attack on Sheffield, wounded survivors converge on a working hospital in search of help - only to find that without supplies, electricity or even a semblance of hygiene, any help the hospital offers is going to be crude, painful and possibly deadly.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (2 votes)

Example of:

Main / CrisisPointHospital

Media sources:

Main / CrisisPointHospital