The National Health: Good & Bad


Is the NHS the envy of the world or a Kafkaesque nightmare? Everyone’s experience is different.

My relationship with the organisation goes back to my birth, when I went straight into an oxygen tent, then continued with bouts of pneumonia through my childhood and into adulthood. Along the way I got to test its resources with depressing regularity, from polio jabs (anyone remember them?) via preventions of or treatments for measles, mumps, whooping cough, scarletina and onwards into endless eyesight problems, broken bones, stitches (37 in a knee after falling out of a closed window – long story) and various bizarre accidents, from an artery slashed on a rose bush and – prepare to wince – an exploding-lightbulb surprise from a screw-in that I had mistaken for a bayonet (you just put your hand over a bayonet and push down hard, or watch as splinters of glass enter your veins if it turns out to be a screw-in).

And on to the present day, with good and bad experiences. The biggest bad for the NHS itself involved the disastrous American patient record system, Lorenzo, that in 2013 ended up costing UK taxpayers nearly £10bn, with the final bill for what would have been the world’s largest civilian computer system likely to be several hundreds of millions of pounds higher. Doctors found they’d been sold a system that couldn’t open multiple files at once and had to revert to paperwork.

The bad also includes personal experiences, like being sent home with detaching retinas and being told to ‘come back if it gets worse’, and my partner being handed a YouTube link as a remedy for an ailment. The system is meant to function in a way that grades and prioritises illness according to the level of seriousness, and it largely works; with cancer it suddenly fast-tracks you.

But, having lived in other countries, I can say it’s not the best system in the world. My experiences in Spain and France have been brilliant, and the US was okay once I’d forked over a small fortune in advance, although I hated being prescribed tons of antibiotics and unnecessary drugs for the smallest illnesses. In my experience UK doctors go out of their way to avoid over-prescription. While NHS doctors and nurses are astounding in their dedication, the administrators can sometimes be a bit combative.

So, I decided to get a hearing test. Yesterday I was sent to a clinic in leafy Hornsey in North London.

A frail, embattled old lady sitting behind a slot in the glass (two feet too low) frantically rattles around paperwork like a Julie Walters character. ‘I’ve not got you down,’ she keeps saying in a small scream, ‘where’s your letter? What’s your name again?’

I tell her again.

‘Are you Timothy?’

‘No, I’m Christopher.’

‘Then where’s your letter?’

I patiently explain that I’ve not got it (it is, of course, proof of an appointment) because I know I’m seeing someone.

‘Where’s your text?’

‘I did not receive a back-up text.’

‘No text? You should have had a text.’

She makes a call. ‘I’ve got a Mr Wowler here. He’s not got his letter. He reckons he’s got an appointment but I’ve no record. Well, he reckons – ‘

‘I don’t reckon,’ I reply, ‘I know I have an appointment.’

She peers angrily at me, then back at the phone. ‘No – his name’s Timothy.’ She looks at me again. ‘Do you live in Arndale Road?’

‘I live in Wharfdale Road.’

She rings off and goes back to thrashing bits of paper. ‘He’ll try to fit you in but it’s not how we do things.’

Admin cock-up their end. I am quickly and efficiently taken to the doctors, who are superb. One is Polish, the other Italian, but who knows if they’ll stay after this damned moronic Brexit? They test me, then talk to me in a thoroughly holistic and intelligent way, discussing lifestyle, making changes, how I can improve my hearing and reduce tinnitus, what exactly is happening as I get older, and we go through advances in neurological science.

I came away feeling encouraged, enlightened and very glad that I’d decided to get a check-up. For the record it seems I have an above-average hearing range that’s dropping a tad on the highest pitches. And I’m thinking of changing my name to Wowler.

15 comments on “The National Health: Good & Bad”

  1. Jane says:

    Sounds horrible, but typical. And in my experience, Polish doctors are the best – they really treat you like a human being. I wonder whether that’s down to a difference in their training or simply a cultural thing? Maybe I’ll move to Poland next. (Fortunately for me, despite being a Brit, I have managed to wangle another citizenship that means I get to stay out here in civilisation when you lot slam the doors shut.)

  2. Peter Tromans says:

    Do you really want to get me started on the NHS? It has few things wrong with it:

    We try to run it on an inadequate budget. Compare its cost with health spending in other countries. That is the main cause of its problems.

    We spend a lot of money on administrators many of whom are there to control costs. If 1,000 people suffer illness Xitis per year then the cost is the cost of treating them. The only way to administer the cost away is to avoid treating them: make them wait so long that they either recover naturally or die! In reality, many end up being treated for tripleXitis because of the wait. And the cost is increased.

    We have a stupid idea that you can reduce total cost to the UK by controlling the spending of the smallest elements (e.g individual medics) while also centralising the whole system. It doesn’t work. All that is achieved is a massive amount of bureaucracy, passing costs to others and a bigger total cost the UK. It’s simple project management/financial decision making – but too hard for UKGov to understand!

    The patients are customers. They pay for their treatment via NI contributions and tax. They are not recipients of charity and shouldn’t be treated as if they are.

    In spite of all that, I think the NHS is pretty good, but it could be enormously better. How hard can it be?

  3. Brooke says:

    Sir, you hit a nerve with this post. As a US citizen with experience of the NHS, I say you’re way ahead of the US. We have the worst healthcare that money–lots of money– can buy. You know I enjoy a good rant so I will stop with this plea– fight for NHS excellence and efficiency for your citizens.

    p.s. I was a consultant and researcher in healthcare for many years; also worked with major pharma/biotech companies. I live in a city dominated by 4 academic hospital systems (translate as high cost intensive medicine with low return on investment in terms of patient outcomes), all “non-profit” , i.e. subsidized by taxpayers.

  4. Jo W says:

    Dear Mr.Wowler, it’s good to hear you’ve had your ears checked, sensible at your age,Timothy!
    I used to moan about the NHS,until I was taken ill in Portugal a few years ago and was taken to their local hospital,then on to another and another. My goodness, the Portuguese put up with something. I was so glad to be discharged and to get on the plane back to London. I was ‘fast tracked’ from my GP and had a cancerous kidney removed within six weeks.
    If I have to queue here,I just think back and then it doesn’t seem so bad.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Mr. Wowler! She should have been taking the hearing test. If administration were as careful as the doctors are there wouldn’t be nearly as many foulups.
    I was told (Canada) that specialist referrals have to be renewed every six months because appointments are arranged by the reception desk and they don’t ask whether the patient really needs another appointment. This doesn’t make sense to me and I wonder if it’s the GP making sure that s/he doesn’t lose the income. It is almost impossible to get onto a doctor’s book, though, because so many practices are full, so perhaps not.
    If you have something seriously wrong so that you’re handed to a specialist you get wonderful treatment; surgery, physio, exercise, medication. I say that even after my husband was in and out of hospital from October till Christmas and is now in recovering from some complicated surgery. He should be pretty close to fine within a couple of weeks. If we had been having to consider talking to insurance companies, arguing over the severity of the situation, worrying about covering the cost of the medication (although we do pay a portion) we could have gone really nuts. We are grateful for our public system even with its faults. We’re fighting for our system – you really have to do the same for yours. Have you looked at the Republic of Ireland’s system? My quilting lady has had a lot of surgery on her feet and she swears by Ireland’s system.
    Jo W, that must have been horrific. Glad it came right in the end.

  6. Jan says:

    Well Wowler i have beaten you to it in the hearing aid stakes (it’s not a handicap race!) Been wearing them for a couple of years or so now. You get used to em. My hearing was n’t that great using specialist radio equipment + earpieces and getting the snoz broken (nerve damage) did not help.

    Yesterday I did an unusual job for my NHS employer. We transported – and I escorted – an elderly lady whose been in hospital in Dorset up to Nottingham where her family live and where she will be in care. The folk working the NHS are pretty much doing the best they can. It’s not perfect but most of us don’t have private health insurance and it’s what we ‘ve got. ALL we’ve got.

    Tomorrow I am working an early shift on a ward. We will be having a celebration lunch with a glass of something for the patients – and hopefully for the carers! Apparently there’s a bit of a do on at Windsor……
    and a Cup Final which seems have been pretty much forgotten about.

    How come your anti ageist stance doesn’t include your describing this receptionist as a frail embattled old lady?

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Jan, how wonderful that the elderly lady is being put in care near her family. In our area it’s more likely to be the other way round – in hospital close to home but the only bed for elderly care perhaps 2 or 300 miles away.
    I hope the patients get to take in the cup final as well as the Windsor do. And how nice that there is a celebration for it. Why is there this world wide excitement about this wedding when they didn’t get so excited for Will and Kate, who is an heir to the throne after all. Harry’s the “spare” so it doesn’t count so much historically.
    Or is it the American factor? And trust Americans to create nasty little scenes. With all of the gossip I think I might have had a heart attack, too.
    Oh, sorry, definitely off topic.

  8. Jan says:

    Wot did you think of the big day then Helen?

    It all seemed to pass of alright. Tell you what I think they have under estimated the numbers of visitors quite considerably. There might have been around 80,000 to 100,000 on Windsors streets but the Long Walk in Windsor Great Park is 2 and 1/2 Miles long and there were about 100,000 there I would have thought.

    Best of luck to them

  9. Jan says:

    Helen – Think wedding fever brought on mainly by massive hype!

    Also because Meghan was somebody from a very different world cos she is biracial, a self made and determined woman because shes lived a harsher real life and this is a sort of very modern version of the Princess Grace of Monaco scenario.

    Sure the Yanks bought into big style but whole sections of Black Britain engaged with this. EVERY Llttle girl can get to be a princess now. This may run against Meghan’s feminist credentials but this is a smashing thing that everyone can get to share a dream. That youngsters get to see this happen.

    Saying that you can’t under estimate Harry’s popularity. He really is one of Britain’s favourite sons. Very much liked across the board. For speaking up for our forces, for helping all sorts of charities across the world. Respected for sharing his own mental health issues, for being a dopey arse as a youngster and growing up in the army. And not least for what he went through as a young lad we will never forget him at his mum s funeral.

    Between them these two could be a very very powerful couple. As I said before best of luck to them. The papers will turn on them soon enough and they will need it.

  10. Wayne Mook says:

    Chasm of Fear by Thy Wowler – Roady Arndale’s brother Wharf is lost when the submarine he on, mysteriously disappears in the Mariana Trench, but are the noises coming from the death trap the crew or the sound of something more sinister? Roady, ace salvage expert, must race against time to rescue his brother and beat the shadowy organisation, only known by a letter, to the secret, deadly cargo on board HMS Pulchritude. I think a new writing career in thrillers beckons, Mr Wowler.

    I did try to convince a friend Thy would be a great diminutive for Timothy, but all he did was say something rude about me. Some people.

    Without the NHS it would cost us and industry a lot more, but I guess banks are much more important. I’ve had some run ins with receptionists and sympathise with you, but happily my local doctor’s staff are splendid and I’ve never had a problem. It’s just so busy and trying to get an appointment is the problem.


  11. Wayne Mook says:

    As for the FA cup it wasn’t as bad as the expected great bus park off. My daughter enjoyed the wedding, it did feel some what unreal, but all the best to them. I hope they can keep up the charity work they do.


  12. Helen Martin says:

    Couldn’t face getting up at 1am or 2 so watched the complete rebroadcast of the BBC coverage PBS provided us Sat evening. An acquaintance said she and her husband got up, dressed, and watched fed with tea (in coronation cups), sandwiches, and cookies. I thoroughly enjoyed the wedding, although I wonder where one gets those hats! Everyone seemed to be having a good time, as you should at a wedding, and the commentators gave lots of air time to representatives of the charities, just as the couple would have wanted. The music was wonderful, although we didn’t hear too much of the orchestra, too bad because it seemed to be lovely. Choirs just great, and Stand By Me as the anthem. What message does that send, eh? The congregation were urged to stand by the couple, too, and one can only hope people will. (If you watched, you’re a witness, so there you are.) Spirited sermon – won’t have done any listener any harm. I agree that any little girl of any background can see herself as a princess now. I loved it.
    I made a Victoria sponge for after church coffee today and wore a red fascinator with feathers and a veil.

  13. Ian Luck says:

    Just for the record, I despise the royal family and everything they stand for. Always have. The book, (whose title escapes me for the present), by Sue Townsend, where the royal family are removed from power, and relocated to a grotty council estate, is a wonderful read. I hate football even more, so Saturday was definitely not the highlight of the week.

  14. Jan says:

    H I bet your cake was lovely and you looked sparkling in your hat!

    The staff nurses on the ward wore fascinators for the Saturday morning shift which looked surprisingly good with uniform dresses! Dopey drawers here forgot about taking in my wedding hat. I have only got the one which has taken me through every wedding, christening and posh race meeting I have ever attended. It’s a bit dented now but will see me out!!

    The bridesmaids and pages (sorry old lady talk happening here) were value for money. That little lads face when he entered the chapel holding up the veil high as he could – just as he had been told to do I expect. That Charlotte wants to enjoy life while she can. The papers will be after marrying her off once she hits 17 or so. They haven’t had a princess to play with for a day or two.

    Be a daughter for Harry and Meghan I reckon.

    Right old lady chat complete.

    I know the book you mean Ian yes it’s very very comical. I’ve got to add though for sheer comedy value it came only a distant second to watching the faces in the congregation when the American Bish doled out a small portion of fire and brimstone in his sermon at St George’s chapel.

    Sir Eltons face was a picture.

    His fella was having trouble keeping a straight face pinned on. Camilla and Chazza got the giggles Camilla quite badly. We just ain’t used to sermons not been boring. Fantastic stuff.
    I knew we were in for something a bit special when old Bish Curry said on tv the night before how he thought it was an April Fool when he got the gig. Then he said (Chicago accent) 0.God, O GOD, O GOD, O GOD, O GOD ” The C of E Archbishop started to look a bit concerned. You could just tell we were in for a startling performance and he didn’t disappoint!

  15. Helen Martin says:

    Whooo ha! (More old lady talk) Whose wedding was it where the little pages were given daggers and, of course, at least one child could not resist playing with his? All of these children did exactly as they were told and obviously they’d been told to stay together. First time soccer players get into a mob which rushes intact up and down the field and that was the thought which crossed my mind with the little maids and pages. They were so young but the bride had never a moment when her veil was being pulled off. (end of old lady talk.)

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