Having lived and travelled in some far-flung locations, I have had more cause than I care to remember to access medical facilities off the beaten track. From broken limbs in Brazil and vicious cuts in Venezuela to food poisoning in France and caesareans in southern Spain, I have plenty of experiences against which to compare our humble health service. So how does it stack up?
From the bad press to which the National Health Service is customarily subjected, you would think it would fail to hit the mark. But guess what? We Brits are the luckiest people on Earth and it’s about time we acknowledged it.
The first three decades of my life were spent comfortably accessing every healthcare service I needed, more or less when I wanted. So, my GP was a bit liberal with the antibiotics and a bit short on listening skills. So, I had to wait a few months for a non-urgent hospital referral. So, the food on the wards was so revolting my friends and family had to smuggle in daily doses of deep pan pizza. So what?
Ten years away from the UK taught me many things, few of which stood out more starkly than the fact that we are amongst the most fortunate and the most complacent in the world.
I have spent time in countries where if you fall ill you have two choices – you go to the airport and you get on a plane home or you pay a small fortune for medical care provided by second-rate doctors using out-of-date techniques and even more out of date technology. I am fortunate in that I have these options but most of the people who live there do not. They go and sit in corridors surrounded by vermin, disease and people dying, and they have to take whatever they can get. This happens.
Even in ‘developed’ countries including much of Western Europe, you may have access to a decent GP service and a level of emergency care, but if you need major treatment you are forced to pay and if you want to be washed or fed on the wards, it’s down to your family or a private nurse.
Seemingly all my adult life, the news has been full of stories of NHS bed shortages, hospital-acquired infections, postcode lotteries, falling staff ratios and major care failures. It is clear that rising costs, an ageing population and huge immigration are placing increasing stress on the NHS, but from my first-hand experiences both in the UK and abroad, I can say categorically that the system is far from broken.
Not long after my return to Britain I suffered an injury – not an acute one but one that I knew was going to need some attention from the surgeon’s knife. On the basis of all I had read in my absence, I was filled with dread at what lay ahead – a fight for referral, an eternity on the waiting list and a probable dose of MRSA awaiting me on the operating table. Instead I was referred on the spot by a computerised link-up and was seen, scanned, operated and rehabilitated comfortably in less than the 18-week target period the NHS is now tasked with achieving. A vast improvement on the way things were when I’d left a decade beforehand.
Of course the system isn’t perfect. Of course it’s wrong that the quality of our care can depend on a simple postcode or the skills or otherwise of individual medical teams. But it’s no wonder the NHS is overstretched. It’s just so damn good that everyone wants a piece of it. The NHS isn’t responsible for the constant stream of health tourists who come here to abuse the system – but it is responsible for delivering a higher quality of care than most of the world’s population can ever dream of receiving.
We should be proud of what we take so easily for granted.
Long live the NHS.