I am immeasurably proud of the NHS: the most successful model of healthcare the world has ever seen. If anyone within my earshot suggests that privatisation would be a step forward they rapidly regret it. But even I sometimes get a wake up call: a stark reminder of the absolute necessity of the NHS, and the horror we may face if the political right’s dream of marketised healthcare is realised.
On a recent shift as the Medical Registrar I received a call from an A&E doctor who wished to discuss a patient who had suffered a stroke. I was surprised as all patients with strokes are channelled into the acute stroke pathway: assessed and treated by a dedicated team and admitted to a specialised unit for consideration of thrombolysis; specialist investigations; and early physio, speech and language therapy. However the A&E doctor explained the situation and I agreed to admit Maria*.
I sat by Maria’s bed in the Medical Assessment Unit, and listened as she told me her story. She was a UK citizen who had been living and working abroad. Whilst at home one day she had suddenly experienced weakness on the right side of her body and her speech had become slurred. She was rushed to hospital and diagnosed with a stroke. In the healthcare system she found herself in she was not assessed for and offered thrombolysis. She had to provide a payment method as soon as her initial assessment was complete and the bills began mounting from there. With every test and treatment she was offered she faced an impossible decision: could she afford what was being offered in monetary terms; and could she afford not to have it in health terms? This trade off had devastating effects. She did not have intensive physiotherapy, speech and language therapy. She did not have relevant investigations. She did not receive the best, evidence-based treatment.
By the time she received advice from the British consulate, and was helped to return to the UK for ongoing care, she was significantly disabled. On arrival to our hospital she had dense weakness with stiffening of the limbs leading to pain. She was wheelchair bound and struggled to get from chair to bed without assistance. Her speech remained impaired, making it difficult to communicate her wishes and needs. We admitted her to a medical bed, and the next day the specialist stroke team began working with her to regain as much function as they could. She has a long journey ahead.
If Maria had been at home in the NHS she would have had world class healthcare. She would have been assessed for thrombolysis. She would have had early physiotherapy, speech and language therapy and nutritional interventions. She would have been able to focus all her energy on her recovery and not worry about mounting debts. She would have embraced every test and treatment offered by her medical team, who themselves would have been focused entirely on her needs, not the financial state of their department.
I watched in horror as the NHS was dismantled by stealth through the Health and Social Care Act. I wrote fervent letters, I shouted, I demonstrated, but to no avail. I often wondered why there was so much apathy from doctors of my generation. A recent article, by a Guddi Singh, who I went to medical school with, suggests some reasons including: a lack of understanding of health politics; being fooled by government rhetoric on the “choice” and “clinician-led” agenda; fear of rocking the boat, especially with a lack of organisational support (from the BMA and RCP who were noticeably silent about the proposed reforms); and a wish to just get on with the job. Doctors have a proud history of advocacy, but this side of our role does not get enough attention in modern medical school curricula.
We have only begun to see the effects of the devastating changes of the Act. As the NHS is systematically cut, ground down and sliced into pieces for private gain it will only get worse. I never want to work in a system in which the first person a patient in need sees is a cashier. I never want to work in a system in which patients trade financial ruin against health and wellbeing. I never want to make decisions about a patients’ care based on cost, rather than need. I never want to see another patient like Maria, and I never want her story repeated right here in the UK.
This can’t be the future. We can’t let it happen. I will be joining Guddi’s call to action and fighting tooth and nail to keep the NHS in the hands of the people, rather than the corporations – the friends of the political class. Markets are not the answer to questions around sustainable provision of high quality healthcare.
Read more about the devastating destruction of the NHS, watch slices of public services being handed over to private companies, and see the impact of these changes on services you and your family may one day rely on.
Stop NHS privatisation.
* names and other details changed to protect confidentiality