Sunday, 6 May 2012

Shiny new buildings mask an NHS stretched to breaking point.

Early last week a close family member was taken suddenly and seriously ill, meaning that he had to be rushed to hospital. The hospital in question was the University Hospital of North Staffordshire (UHNS), a shiny new institution built on the site of the old City General using PFI cash.

At this point I would like to say that I have nothing but admiration for the calm professionalism under extreme pressure displayed by the staff and none of what follows is in any way a criticism of their behaviour. However anyone who experiences the NHS at the sharp end cannot do so without coming face to face with some uncomfortable truths about how it operates.

The UHNS looks more like a mid range motorway hotel than a hospital with its pastel painted corridors, coffee bar and soft lighting. Look a little closer, something you have more time to do so than you would ever want if you’re waiting for a loved one to have treatment, and you soon realise that within this modern shell operates a system that has changed little since the 1940’s.

Here, just as in the decade of bombs, rationing and blackouts life is a slow progress from one queue to another; moments of frantic activity punctuated by interminable stretches when nothing happens. That patients so often bear such a situation with such, well, patience says much about the inherent stoicism of the British character, even so it contributes to make an already difficult time that little bit more traumatic than it needs to be.

This is more to do with the huge cuts imposed on the NHS than the Spanish practices the tabloids love to accuse its staff of engaging in, as the PFI investors start to claw back their money I see little chance of things improving soon. Not while investment bankers have private healthcare anyway.

For decades politicians of both the left and the right have lavished the NHS with syrupy and hypocritical praise whilst basing their attitudes towards it on outmoded and self serving misconceptions. The left treat any suggestion that the Britain of 2012 needs a heath service very different to the one it did in 1948 as a potential existential threat; the right mask creeping privatisation with airy talk about efficiency.

I have yet to meet anyone who wants Britain to have the sort of health service where the first piece of equipment brought to a patient’s bedside is the credit card reader, but we may end up with one if the debate surrounding the NHS is stifled by sentiment and self interest.

Hospitals are the twenty first century equivalent of a medieval cathedral, a vast open space into which all human life inevitably pours. We need an honest debate about how they can be made to serve our needs in a way that keeps the NHS financially viable without making compromising on the principles that make it unique as the one institution all sections of the public respect and value.

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