Sunday, 10 February 2013

The NHS has been getting worse for 30 years – compassion-mongers have just accelerated the decline

Now that I’ve reached sixty, I’m doing my best ignore all the stories about how British nurses seem to have gone from being angels to demons in the blink of an eye (or, rather, during the course of thirteen years of enlightened Labour rule). After all, there’s a chance I’ll be spending time in hospital between now and popping my clogs. Like most people, I’d prefer not to wind up lying in a pool of my own faeces and drinking foul water from a flower-vase because my nurses gained their pseudo-degrees at the Josef Mengele Institute for Patient Care.

But, despite my best efforts to stick my fingers in my ears and go “lalalala”, it’s been hard to ignore the current tsunami of national outrage.

There are many reasons why most of us would now rather face a week of being water-boarded at Gitmo than occupy an NHS bed. But I think it’s important that we don’t pretend that declining standards are a recent phenomenon - because the NHS has been going wrong for decades.

I spent a few weeks in hospital 25 years ago in a mixed-sex ward, surrounded by geriatric dementia patients, being driven nuts by the sound of Coronation Street blasting out of the TV room handily situated next to my bed. I can vividly recall having to explain to two spectacularly uninterested nurses in the middle of the night that a couple of paracetamol and a suggestion that I "tried to get some sleep" weren’t really going to do a hell of a lot to alleviate the exquisite agony I was experiencing at that very moment (acute pancreatitis - which, apparently, is up there with cancer and child-birth). I eventually bullied them into fetching a young South African doctor who instantly shot me full of pethidine and told them to give me as much of it as I wanted as often as I wanted it (he is remembered in my prayers to this day).

Even back then it struck me as odd that a patient in truly dreadful pain should have to use precious energy convincing nursing staff to take action to relieve his suffering: what were you supposed to do if – like so many of my fellow patients in that dismal Hammersmith Hospital ward – you were over 85 and ga-ga?

I also remember the immigrant cleaning staff being unfriendly, lazy and useless and the porters being unfriendly, lazy, useless and stroppy: they seemed to spend more than half their time on "breaks".

But this was the 1980s and Britain was still in thrall to the myth that the NHS was the envy of the world. (Third World, maybe.)

Before that unpleasant experience, the only time I’d had to stay in hospital for more than a night was in the early 1980s, at St Mary’s, Paddington. Because of a shortage of beds, I got a private room. That was nice, but the pleasantness stopped there. Of the seven or eight nurses I had to deal with during my stay, only one of them showed any sign of caring whether I lived or died. The West Indians couldn’t be bothered to speak at all, one English nurse told me I was "very lucky" to get my own room (as if I'd somehow cheated the system, possibly using bribery), and an Irish cow was abysmally rude – for no reason whatsoever – to my Nigerian girl-friend (one of the very few instances of racism I witnessed during our seven years together).

When our son was born in a local maternity hospital 19 years ago, he was taken to sleep in an adjoining special room with other newborns for a few hours. He threw up and was left to sleep in his own sick because (a) my wife was asleep and (b) none of the nurses could be bothered to check on him. (We wouldn’t have known about this if it hadn’t been for the red mark that remained on his cheek for over a week.)

But whatever was wrong with the NHS two and three decades ago seems to have got exponentially worse. Partly that’s because of the code of Omerta that means anyone criticising the organisation is a fascist bastard who wants to close it down and let sick poor people die in ditches, as was always happening before the Beveridge Report, apparently. Partly it’s because of the myth that it's chronically underfunded, when the truth is that it’s just chronically mismanaged. From the recent experiences of one of my sisters-in-law, it’s evident that the current system is designed to ensure that staff will do anything but take responsibility for the welfare of an individual patient – nurses, GPs, consultants and hospital administrators run a mile when asked for a simple decision, especially regarding post-operative care. And once you’ve temporarily left the jurisdiction of one NHS region – in this case, for example, because someone had rather carelessly failed to include an ICU in the plans for a gleaming new hospital, they weren't equipped to undertake a complex emergency operation – the bastards will do practically anything but take responsibility for you when you’re returned to their bailiwick, even though that’s where you bloody well live.

The NHS now seems to exist soley for the benefit of its staff, who the rest of – until recently – weren’t allowed to criticise. And the reason why NHS staff seemed convinced that their well-being is the point of the whole system is that we’ve spent decades telling them that they’re above criticism. The reason so many nurses have been allowed to get away with treating vulnerable patients with monstrous cruelty is because of all the middle-class compassion-mongers who, over the last half-century, have rebutted any hint of criticism with the same tired old clichés about nurses being angels and about a chronic lack of funding and about the NHS being the envy of the rest of the universe. This reached its apogee during last year’s ludicrous Olympics opening ceremony, when Danny Boyle essentially told us that the greatest thing about Britain – the nation’s crowning achievement, no less – was a health service that was already being regularly exposed as vicious, heartless and incompetent.

Lefties like Danny Boyle go on propagating tired old myths about the NHS because it makes them feel good about themselves: “I am a very caring, selfless human being because I support a very caring, selfless organisation like the NHS.” If it hadn’t been for emotional masturbators like Boyle and his ilk, the chances are that some of the horrors now coming to light might have been avoided.

And before anyone insists on regaling me with tales of how well they or their family have  been treated by the NHS (yes, I'm talking about you, Mr. Cameron) I can supply that sort of anecdotal evidence just as easily: my mother was treated with such kindness during what proved to be her final illness that it genuinely makes my eyes moisten just to think of it. But that's as it should be - and it's absolutely no excuse for ignoring and dealing with all the failures!


  1. One of things I've learned in recent years is that the NHS is the envy of the world. Before that I never thought one way or the other about health care in Britain. I understood it to be one of the many single-payer systems that are found, as we have been constantly reminded, in every Western industrialized nation except the United States. Like most people I know, it wasn't something I ever tought about and certainly didn't realize it was something that I wanted.

    During this process of discovery, the thing that has stuck out the most (other than, what to my mind, was an utterly bizzare episode during the opening ceremonies of the olypmics...what no love for the Department of Motor Vehicles?) is this business about being bunked barracks style.

    My grandaddy went on full disability in 1980 (at which point he began working for cash of course). Over the last 30 years of his life he had numerous hospital stays and two bypass surgeries. I don't ever remember him sharing a room with anybody. As far as the government knew, he didn't have a dime to his name.

    I had my appendix out when I was ten...four days in my own room with a remote control tv. Something I had no experience with at home. My sister had her boys at River Oaks Women's hospital and stayed in what was a suite...couches, kitchenette, etc.

    We come and go as we please too...unless it's ICU or recovery. A good friend of mine, in his 70's, was in for respiratory problems recently. He was scared so I spent the night with him...sleeping on a couch, going down for cigarettes throughout the night.

    I think people in Britain should do what people in Britain think is best. It's really not my concern and I make no reccomendations. It's not my place. I certainly don't want such a system foisted on me and my family though. If y'all have problems running it...can you imagine what it will be like over here? We are doomed.

  2. You have hospital rooms with couches in them???? Sheesh! To be fair, my sister-in-law ended up in a single room for most of her stay over Christmas, having undergone an operation for a smashed pelvis and a hip replacement. There was a remote control for the TV, but in order to watch anything you had to buy a token or something - but getting hold of one of these damn things to stick in the TV proved impossible either for her or her visitors. Her husband ended up buying her a little DVD player and various relatives leant her DVD movies to watch. There was a cupboard in the corner of her room and a whole bunch of people wandered in during the day to fetch stuff from it without a word of explanation.

    The people in Britain have been brainwashed by successive governments and the liberal media into believing that our style of socialistic health care is marvellous and that anyone earning less than $250,000 in the US is regularly left to die in the street. If I have to hear again on British TV how blues singer Bessie Smith died because a white hospital refused to treat her I may burst into tears - this is mentioned as if it happened last week. You see, we have the best-equipped hospitals, the nicest nurses, the most fantastic doctors in the universe... blah blah blah. Pure fantasy. It's only in the past couple of years that people have started to criticise the health service without automatically adding that, of course, it's basically a wonderful system. (Of course, the ones who spend their time selling it to us go private.)

    If Britain's anything to go by, Obamacare will mean you'll pay a lot more than you're already paying to receive worse treatment than you've had to this point, and that you'll be made to feel as if you're receiving charity rather than a service that you actually pay for. Bad luck!