Every day it seems there’s a new story about some appalling scandal in an NHS hospital somewhere in England. Needless deaths, botched surgery, patients treated with the utmost contempt or cruelty, neglect and misery, particularly where elderly patients are concerned.
How on earth does this fit with the acclaimed vision of our beloved NHS displayed during the Olympic opening ceremony last summer? How does it fit with polls taken when the coalition government came to power showing that satisfaction with the NHS was at an all-time high?
Anyone who’s recently had NHS treatment, or is close to someone who has, knows that it isn’t perfect – of course it’s not, it’s run by human beings. It also has less spent on it per head than most other healthcare systems in the developed world.
But to set against the terrible stories that have emerged in recent weeks, and the very real pain and despair that patients and their relatives have suffered, are the many – perhaps more? – truly good experiences recalled by others. We just don’t hear them very often, especially in the media or from politicians.
It’s often simply anecdotal. Yet that doesn’t make it less valid. What have we got to go on for the most part but our own experience? Unlike the sufferers in the news, I myself, and those I love, have every reason to be grateful for what the NHS has given us. Four close members of my immediate family, of three different generations, have, during the past ten years or so, owed their very lives to the NHS, in various parts of the country.
And to set against the terrible stories of neglected elderly patients, my mother, in her 90s, two years ago underwent surgery for a rare form of cancer. Not at any moment was there a hint that she was too old for such care, nor did she receive anything but the very best. A cardio-thoracic surgeon from Newcastle’s Freeman hospital worked with a team of plastic surgeons from the RVI to make her well. A seven-hour operation, three weeks in intensive care, nine weeks in all in hospital, and she was returned home to excellent daily support, to pick up the pieces and recover to the point where she was once again doing her own shopping, attending numerous social events and even taking up bellringing again.
She’s had the odd hiccup since – a chest infection, following a winter cold; the onset of heart problems; sciatica – one of which necessitated another brief stay in hospital. But she is nearly 97, so that’s hardly surprising. That too was a positive experience, as far as any stay in hospital can be, for she was treated with respect and dignity.
And of course all of this care was, for her as for all of us, absolutely free of charge.
But maybe good anecdotes don’t suit the interests of our governing politicians as much as the bad ones do. After all, if you’re set on the ‘top-down’ drastic reorganisation of the NHS we were promised would never happen, the more stories suggesting that anything would be an improvement on what we currently have the better. But perhaps they should also be considering that all the years of inept, ill-thought out reorganisation may well be behind the current examples of failure.
I’m not suggesting the NHS doesn’t need improvement, perhaps even a measure of reorganisation. For instance, anyone with any experience of hospitals would, I think, agree strongly that weekends should be thing of the past, and that medical and ancillary staff should continue to work over the weekend, even if it means paying them overtime to compensate. After all, if an elderly patient needs physiotherapy to make her ready to go home, then two days out of the seven without help can hold up her recovery and delay the moment when her bed is released for someone else.
But this ideological obsession with privatisation, with a drastic structural reorganisation that seems to have little to do with improving patient care – all that is merely costing millions that could be much better spent on a well-thought-out, gentler programme of improvement, based on thorough evidence as to what will work for the good.
Meanwhile it looks terrifyingly as if the NHS – our NHS – starved of cash for the things it really needs day to day, may be lost to us, so that the good stories will be lost too, past and gone. I wish I could be more hopeful for its future.