I was in America last weekend and while there was afflicted with an earache that demanded more attention than a couple of painkillers and a lie down. My hosts took me to a local drop-in medical shop where a ‘nurse practitioner’ diagnosed acute sinusitis and a middle ear infection. She prescribed antibiotics and presented me with a bill for $135.
At the pharmacy I was charged $270 for ten antibiotic pills. As I was returning home the following day my friend suggested that I bought only three for $81 dollars and went to my own doctor to get the rest of the course. The air journey home was, as you might imagine, challenging.
If anything were needed for me to trumpet the unparalleled glory of our National Health Service, this comparatively minor incident certainly confirmed it. I hear horror stories of uninsured visitors being charged tens of thousands of dollars when, in one case, going into labour three months early. I do have travel insurance but with an excess that makes it unlikely that I will bother to claim.
The experience has confirmed for me that we must man the barricades to protect our NHS in the UK. I see abundant signs of its erosion. Accident and emergency services are being closed everywhere and nurses and doctors are becoming ever harder to recruit within the UK. It is only a few decades since appointments with GPs were more often than not for the same day, when the length of hospital waiting lists did not need to be the subject of targets, when surgery receptionists saw their job as more about helping the patient than protecting the busy doctors, many of whom spend more time satisfying a bureaucratic hunger for forms, targets and statistics than helping patients. This is why many good and caring doctors are leaving the profession. This is perhaps why the doctor to whom I spoke on the phone left me feeling more an irritant than patient as he told me he didn’t need to examine me, the American antibiotics were wrong and a prescription would be ready later.
Why things are changing so disastrously it is not entirely easy to understand. Yes, there are many more of us and drugs are expensive but the many more of us pay more taxes too. Maybe the expensive NHS trusts that replaced a largely autonomous medical profession have not helped.