Yesterday I spoke about the economic crisis to the students and faculty of a London university.
At some point, the subject of the NHS came up, tangentially, with me mentioning in passing that a) contrary to a widespread superstition, it’s not a religion, but merely a way of financing medical care and b) as far as ways of financing medical care go, it’s just about the worst one can think of: wasteful, corrupt, statist and grossly inefficient.
The students, surprisingly, agreed with me, but their professors, predictably, didn’t. Never mind the waiting lists, insisted one of them. The NHS is the best value for money anywhere in the world.
That’s a hell of a consolation, I objected in my usual facetious manner, if you don’t happen to be bleeding too fast. And anyway, that’s simply not true.
Then how come, insisted my opponent, all European countries envy us our wholly socialised medicine? If so, I replied, they’ve managed to contain that emotion reasonably well. After all, not a single one has gone for that sort of thing. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they haven’t really flattered us all that much.
I had neither the time nor the inclination to comment on my own experience with the NHS, and anyway, patience not being my prime virtue, I soon got disgusted with that lot. I feel differently about my readers, so here it is.
First, my worship at the altar of our national deity has been somewhat curtailed by private medical insurance. My principal exposure has been at the primary-care level and, though it takes several days to see my GP, he is truly excellent.
In fact, by spotting the early symptoms of a rather ghastly disease and instantly referring me to one of the best consultants in the business, he probably saved my life a few years ago. However, my experience with NHS secondary care makes me understand my good friend (an NHS doctor himself) who claims that, if he had a serious problem, he’d rather be treated in Zaire than at an NHS hospital.
Once I had a series of gall-stone attacks, without knowing that’s what they were. Each attack was worse than the previous one, and finally my wife had to call the ambulance in the middle of the night.
The paramedics explained that it was against their charter to take me to a private hospital and promptly transported me to one of London’s newest and supposedly best NHS hospitals.
It had been built only a few years earlier, and the plan – mercifully shelved though not yet cancelled – was to accommodate this new arrival by demolishing a great hospital, itself only about 30 years old, a mile down the road. Sounds like a perfectly sensible idea, doesn’t it?
The doctor on duty took a couple of hours to see me, with the pain growing worse by the minute. Finally he turned up, admitted he didn’t have a clue about the diagnosis and shot me full of dope, which produced the kind of convulsions that would take a Goya to render pictorially and a Kafka verbally.
My doctor friend later suggested that this classic reaction of gall stones to opiates would have served as differential diagnosis for any decent physician. Well, it didn’t in this case.
Another hour or two later (I’d lost track of time) I was wheeled into a ward, only to find that half the beds next to mine contained women in various stages of undress.
Historically, I haven’t always minded sharing my bedroom with scantily dressed females, but somehow the time and the place seemed wrong. And in any case, most of them were way past the age of consent. Respect for patients’ dignity is clearly not a top priority in the NHS, I thought before passing out.
To cut the long (and painful) story short, I spent the next three days there without either being seen by a specialist or having my condition diagnosed by any other doctor.
Finally, in the evening of the third day, I rose from my bed, put on my clothes and said I was discharging myself, much to the displeasure of the doctor on duty. She was a diminutive girl who looked about 15 but, considering she was fully qualified (in a manner of speaking), had to be older.
‘Does this mean you’re going against medical advice?’ she demanded haughtily. ‘Yes, I know I’m denying myself the advantage of your vast experience…,’ I said and added a few words I later regretted.
The next day I went to see a private consultant who diagnosed gall stones before I finished my first plaintive sentence. We’ll operate tomorrow, he said (a friend of mine, not blessed with private insurance, had to wait six months for a similar operation on the NHS). Not to worry, he said, it’s only a keyhole surgery.
However, when the surgeon got inside me the next morning, he realised that gangrene had set in. So keyhole surgery went out of the window, and he had to open me up like a tin of sardines.
Another day or two, he told me when I came to, and you would have been dead. Then he said something about the NHS, translating the first letter in its name as ‘Nasty’, the second as ‘Horrible’ and the third as something I’ll let you guess.
My only other experience with an NHS hospital was more comic than near-fatal. That time it was a kidney stone, rather than the gall variety (in case you’re wondering, I collect ailments, aiming to merit an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records).
I was taken to a hospital that had both an NHS wing and a private one. The former was my first port of call, but, after they realised I could go private, I was wheeled to the latter.
The muscular chap who did the wheeling kept calling me ‘Alex’, even though we weren’t close friends and he was less than half my age. It was Alex this and Alex that, but only until we crossed the magic line separating the two wings. The moment we did cross it, he instantly began to call me ‘Mr Boot’, which I remained for the duration of my stay.
Add to this my beloved mother-in-law who died of a hospital-acquired MRSA, and I’d be lying to you if I claimed that my objections to the NHS are purely academic and dispassionate. Personal experience does come into it, adding an empirical tinge to the philosophical rejection.
This would be unsound if it were only my own experience – but it isn’t. One can hardly open the papers these days without reading about yet another murderous outrage committed in the name of a medical care equal to all.
How much brainwashing has it taken, one wonders, to make Englishmen worship the NHS the way they used to worship God? Probably enough to make the USSR proud and Red China turn green with envy.