Over the summer, the NHS quietly saved my life several times. On each occasion, it caught a rapid worsening of my underlying condition, allowing me to be treated quickly and efficiently. Yet I’ve also witnessed at first hand the immense strain the NHS is under, a situation that could worsen should a hard Brexit come about, not least from any potential US trade deal that could pave the way for significantly higher drug prices.
Brexit will inevitably be the key focus in this election campaign. But the issues facing the NHS go far beyond Brexit – including its crumbling infrastructure and an underfunded system blighted by privatisation, dramatically affecting patient care.
When I was admitted in June, it quickly became clear that I needed to be transferred to a more specialist hospital; but due to a lack of capacity there, I was held in an acute bed in the hospital I was admitted to for about three months. In 2017, Age UK estimated the cost of an excess bed to be between £2,000 and £2,500 per week, suggesting a minimum cost of £24,000. Had the bed in the specialist hospital been immediately available, that money could have been saved. This is a symptom of a system crippled by underfunding.
During my time in hospital, I’ve also experienced problems with the privatisation of services such as portering and patient transport. When I was transferred late at night from one hospital to the next by a privatised patient transport service, I was told I was allowed a maximum of one bag: did I want to leave my feeding tube pump or my ventilator (never mind my own possessions) behind? In the end, after an argument, I was allowed to bring everything because I was travelling alone and there was space, but a confused or less confident patient might not have been so successful.
The hospital I’m now in is newly renovated, but I was left with a bed that didn’t work for a week – meaning every time I needed my regular personal care, people had to risk serious back injury or spend extensive amounts of time coaxing it to function. For the first six weeks of my stay here, two of the lights in my room didn’t work – one not at all, and the other flickering. I am frequently told that my room is far too hot, and the rest of the ward far too cold, but temperature is centrally set.
The nursing staff here have been excellent – but high-quality staff are not enough if we put them in environments where they cannot do their best. I’ve been informed that there is only the nursing time for me to use the toilet (a complex procedure) every other day – which may have contributed to dangerous infections I’ve been fighting. How can we ask our highly trained and committed professionals to provide care in an environment where they’re being blocked from the start – overworked, with too many patients and responsibilities, and not enough resources to give those patients the care that they need and too few resources?
There is an operation that might help me, but the waiting list is currently eight months – and it is deemed an “elective” procedure. Given the medical risks of going untreated, anything that could lessen those is hardly elective, but by calling these procedures elective, it makes the waiting lists and cancellations seem less bad. Without alternative plans, this could mean a further eight-month wait in hospital, with my health at risk, or, even worse, deteriorating.
An NHS in this state is a stain on the country, and an ongoing risk to patient safety. It’s come about because of nine years of persistent underfunding and austerity, which has come on top of PFI hospital-building initiatives that have loaded hospital trusts with unsustainable repayments.
As we go into this election, we must not forget the damage that’s been done to the NHS – and the individual, human casualties that have resulted. I write this piece having been waiting in hospital for five months now, with little immediate prospect of being discharged.