The first hurdle I had to clear while waiting for a routine heart procedure at a large south London hospital last month was a dementia test. No one had told me about this beforehand, so I just had to wing it. I sat on the edge of a trolley in my hospital pinny and answered questions from a young and very agreeable nurse. I can’t remember much about the test, except that it wasn’t very difficult and I passed.
The greatest challenge was having to count backwards from 20. The other things were easier. I was asked my name, my address and my telephone number, and got them all right. I was also able to name the Queen. The counting backwards was a little bit more difficult – I stumbled at five – but in the end I got it right.
All this happened at St George’s Hospital, Tooting. I was there to have a heart monitor implanted in my chest. The device records your heart’s mood swings for up to three years, and can help your cardiologist find out why (for example) you have dizzy spells and fall over in Oxford Street. The operation was performed under local anaesthetic, and was over in half an hour or so.
It was a wonderful experience. I loved it. The nurses and doctors – most of
them ethnically African or Asian – were courteous, quick, patient, kind and jolly. When two medical students – a Sikh and a very attractive woman of (perhaps) Chinese extraction – visited me after my op and asked whether they could interview me, I said they most certainly could. It helped, I suppose, that I was in an hysterically cheerful mood, even though, rather to my disappointment, I had not been given any mind-altering substances before they opened me up.
“It says here that you are allergic to garlic,” said the woman, reading from my notes.“Could you tell us a bit more about that?” “For sure,” I said. “Garlic gives me a full hangover for 24 hours at least. I feel liverish and depressed and just all-over ill.”
“I bet you don’t each much Indian food,” said the Sikh. We all laughed. “No, but I do eat a lot of Italian food.” They had triggered one of my obsessions. “Most people think that Italian food is full of garlic. It is not. It’s only in England and America that Italian food is full of garlic.” They nodded politely, and I told them that in Italy spaghetti carbonara would not contain garlic, any more than a pizza margherita would. What I didn’t tell them was that Jamie Oliver, the TV chef, prescribes garlic in both.
The NHS is not getting a good press at the moment. And it’s not just the tabloids. One hears appalling stories from real people of incompetence, indifference to patients’ needs and scarcely believable bureaucratic blunders. Yet with the exception of a bit of bodged surgery, the worst thing the NHS has done to me is to keep me waiting.
For the most part my care has been good. When I had private medical insurance I was treated well, too, but no better than with the NHS. Of course, I liked being in a hospital where you have your own room and your own loo – and I liked, obviously, the consultant’s nice fountain pen and the nice furniture of his surgery and his nice English secretary – but style does not always translate into substance.
The NHS is a bit like the BBC: excellent in spite of its faults and failings. The only way to save it, however, is to change it, and in the eyes of some to betray its primary purpose – to provide healthcare free to all at the point of delivery. It now seems clear that “all” is just too many. There isn’t the money. Patients may one day find they have
to pay a nominal fee to visit their GP.
There are, meanwhile, strong calls for the NHS to stop prescribing low value over-the-counter items such as cough medicine, sun cream and indigestion pills – and about time too, some might think. It is estimated that as much as £400 million a year could be saved by making patients pay for their own flaming sun cream, etc.
Other NHS services are apparently being eyed for the bullet, IVF treatment among them. At any rate the media doctor Max Pemberton has told his Daily Mail readers: “Infertility, while deeply upsetting, is not an illness. Having a child is not a right and the NHS should not be footing the bill to satisfy people’s desire to become parents.” Good point. Neither is pregnancy an illness, though, and the NHS really ought not to be footing the bill to satisfy some people’s desire not to become parents.
But anybody who spoke like that in the NHS – or, indeed, on the Tube – would be placed between armed guards and marched off for a dementia test.