How to Use the NHS

Some now expect miracles – there is no benefit and therefore no point in going to your GP if you have a cold. Nor do you need to go to A&E with a broken fingernail or a year old rash (these are real examples).

It may be a bit of an understatement to mention that a lot has changed recently. No more so than for those working in the health service and, while many are unwell with Covid-19 and while those that need it most struggle to get the PPE they need, the everyday aspects of their jobs have somewhat fallen by the wayside. Figures for February and March show a 22% fall in A&E attendances. General practice and outpatient secondary care have also seen a drop in demand for routine enquiries.

While this has freed up resources for the issue at hand, some may notice that many of the issues for which they might normally have sought help and advice have gone away on their own. Others have been able to find the answer to their questions online. The sore throat that you had might have cleared up on its own without antibiotics. That painful ankle might have cleared up with measures you followed from the NHS website.

This unusual set of circumstances has highlighted an area that perhaps we can all learn from as we emerge from this crisis (though there is a long way to go yet). As a nation, we have become somewhat spoilt by the free healthcare we can expect; our perspectives have shifted over time as more becomes possible. Some now expect miracles – there is no benefit and therefore no point in going to your GP if you have a cold. Nor do you need to go to A&E with a broken fingernail or a year old rash (these are real examples).

In 1948, at the inception of the NHS, paracetamol was yet to become readily available, open heart surgery was 4 years old, statins had not yet been invented and antibiotics were in their infancy. Fast forward to the present day and we are seeing around 200 heart transplants a year in the UK, an entire pharmacy of medications available to us at our beck and call, lifesaving emergency services 24/7 and access to state of the art intensive monitoring equipment. Around half of the UK population takes at least one regular prescription medication. If your hips or knees go, you are entitled to have metal replacements inserted for no extra charge. If you have a rash, you can have it seen to or if you want your ingrowing toenail sorted, you can have it clipped or lopped off. If your ears are blocked, someone will clear that for you too.

With our population increasing and growing older, it is little wonder that the whole thing is beginning to creak. The outcome…? You have to wait a long time for your hip replacement, you might be denied the chance to have your bunions sorted out because it is a low funding priority. Your GP is running late by 20 minutes or even a bit longer. That may seem a bit insensitive or flippant (or both) but, believe me, I’m not happy about it, certainly not if it means people are waiting in agony for treatments. While most people have a rational grip on such situations, a few do not. Those are the ones that sometimes abuse staff who are only trying their best in impossible circumstances.

This current situation may therefore serve as a not so gentle reminder of what are reasonable expectations in terms of our healthcare. That said, between early and late March, there has been a fall of 150 patients per day presenting with symptoms of heart attack. Now, it is unlikely that the Covid-19 pandemic has somehow cured heart disease altogether and, though many people with chest pain turn out to be fine, there will be some within that cohort of 150 who have had real heart attacks; heart attacks that are currently going untreated.

Lack of presentation for this sort of thing, or indeed other worrying symptoms of things like cancer (loss of weight and appetite or a change in bowel habit to name just three), means the health impact of this pandemic will not be just related to Covid-19. For anyone with worrying symptoms like this, you absolutely must not ignore them just because of the outbreak.

There have been some cases of people cancelling urgent cancer referrals due to concerns over the virus. While one can understand the anxiety surrounding this, these referrals are there for a reason. Do not delay them.

We need to use the NHS sensibly. Not too much, but not too little. We have swung from one extreme to the other in the last few weeks. Once we emerge from this, we must all consider how best to use it going forwards, and focus on the bigger issues at hand, no doubt at a time of great change. Self-care is an enormous part of that, not just in how we deal with an acute medical situation but also in how we look after ourselves in general. Smoking, alcohol, diet and exercise are the key areas that cost nothing to improve.

As doctors we want to ensure that everyone who needs to be seen, and whom we can help, presents to us appropriately. At the same time, we would request that others, who might reasonably be able to manage their own minor issues, do so. It is a fine balance and even writing this makes me uneasy that some may stay away for fear of overusing the service. The level of disparity in people’s views of how best to use the NHS is, in my experience, remarkable.

In summary then, urgent care must remain a priority for the service as a whole, but how we look after an ageing population effectively is also vital. Prevention of health problems is key. We should look after ourselves properly as far as is practicable but also seek help when appropriate in order to avert bigger health issues down the line. Staying away isn’t always the answer (particularly at the moment) but there is a balance to be achieved. Now might be a good time to redress that balance.

The Body

Now I don’t want to sound bitter at all, but this was the book I had planned to write. Fortunately I got wind of it before planning got out of hand, but still…

Fair play though, Bill Bryson is a master at this sort of thing, and for someone not primarily medical it is a huge achievement. He has essentially taught himself a large proportion of medicine! This is a superbly written and researched book and I love all of the anecdotes and tidbits. Indeed his previous books had been an influence on my own writing in this respect. 

Despite the fact that it has diverted my future writing projects, I don’t mind. I’m glad he wrote it. I’m not bitter. Probably it is something everyone should read. I would even say it should be on the curriculum at schools. 

Healthcare After Covid-19

“Just as important as the government’s role in the NHS as it emerges from Covid-19 is the responsibility all of us have. We must shift our baselines back a hundred years – maybe more”


As a civilisation, humanity knows so much. To have in our arsenal an understanding of physics that includes relativity and all of its applications alongside our almost infinite artistic creativity is testament to our intelligence. These examples only scratch the surface of what we can do. So it is hugely humbling when we experience something like the Cvoid-19 pandemic.


As powerful as we are, we are still painfully fragile in the wider context – something we have a tendency to forget. It was not so long ago that we had to undergo operations without the luxury of anaesthetic and before antibiotics, we were faced with the rather uncivilised prospect of fighting infections using just our own immune systems.


Indeed, so uncivilised has the idea of being even slightly unwell become, that people now will seek medical help for a few days of cough and sore throat. The expectation for these worried well is that it is their right to expect an immediate cure. “Surely if we can do all of these marvellous things with technology, there is no disease we cannot sort out if we put our minds to it,” these people think. But these people are living in a different world, one of their own imagination. Others more prudent, sensible or experienced will realise that what we can do falls far short of this idealistic expectation.


We as a species go further. We harm ourselves willingly and then expect our medical professionals to pick up the pieces – even become angry when they can’t. Smoking, lack of exercise, poor diets – take your pick. That these things are bad for us there can be no question.


Of course one cannot wholly blame individuals for this. Capitalistic society is to blame here as much as anything. Profit and competition introduce temptation at the expense of welfare. I am not preaching socialism here – far from it. I simply point out that the drive for business to gain custom at any cost is a huge flaw in the system and in our health.


Whichever way one looks at it, we have become spoilt. Our perspectives on what we might expect from our healthcare have been shifted gradually but significantly over the last century. Only now are we being brought down to earth with a more humbling realisation; the thin facade of our supposedly advanced age has been withdrawn. There is even a name for this sort of thing – shifting baselines syndrome. It could be applied to many things. We have come to accept the nonsense and bile that comes from Donald Trump’s horrible little mouth as just the way it is these days. The baseline has shifted.


Just in the same way, many have been spoilt by the healthcare provision that they expect as a given. What we expect as a free benefit from our NHS nowadays (toe nail surgery, access to a GP to tell them about your cough, state of the art surgical procedures, cures for cancer and lifesaving emergency response within minutes) would have been the stuff of dreams for our ancestors. That the ever-expanding achievements of the last 50 years of medicine has caused the entire system to creek under its own weight is not surprising.


When I was younger, I reassured myself that if I or anyone I knew ever became unwell, it would be fine because there would always be someone somewhere that could cure whatever ailment had befallen them. My impression of medicine was that it was water-tight and so much more precise than the reality. A reality that slowly dawned on me during medical school. Much of it is guess work. Barely any treatment is 100% effective. What we don’t know far outweighs what we do know. The assumption is that there will always be a medicine to solve all problems. In a profession that revolves around trust in the doctor or nurse (a reassurance that can be therapeutic in itself) it is difficult sometimes for us to admit that we don’t have all the answers and can only do so much. Perhaps it is time we were more open with its limitations or else we make a rod for our own backs.
One might argue that what we now provide under its umbrella has gone far beyond the boundaries of what is sensible. To argue that we can effectively achieve 100% of what we aspire to medically is not possible. The issue is, the more superfluous and luxurious perks we add in, it edges out or at best blunts the core services that are most important.


At a time in which we are faced with something as dangerous and universal as Covid-19, we must heed a wake up call. The work the NHS is doing at the moment is what it is there for. Add to that health prevention, basic surgical treatments, mental health support, serious disease detection and treatment (including cancer), dignified end of life care, and social care.


Beyond the essentials, it is time for government to look at what the NHS really stands for and what it can really achieve. (Or preferably a cross party response to side step the political distractions). In an ideal world it would do everything to maximum efficiency. If a government wants to invest enough to make this possible, then great. The reality though means that the healthier a population is, the older it gets. Add to that the ever increasing scope of potential therapeutic options and one may argue that we could reach a point where a line must be drawn in how far we go in prolonging life. Should we become reliant of a system of health to such an extent (and perhaps we have already reached that point), the consequences of that system and it’s resources failing do not bear thinking about.


Governments need to look at this, decide where the line is drawn in what the NHS does and is expected to do. More importantly, they must be open about this. To back the NHS in a blind head long rush into the future, pledging vague sums of money that don’t make any sense to those in the know – none of this is helpful in any other way than to win elections. To acknowledge the need to be sensible about what is achievable and what is not seems difficult for politicians. Hence back room deals, rumours of privatisation etc. No one wants to see a privatised NHS. If the politicians are to be believed then they are included in this group, so why the cloak and daggers? The public deserve transparency and straight forward answers. Most understand that there is no definite right answer to a problem, even more so if it is explained to them. Without this, conspiracy and disquiet will breed.


Just as important as the government’s role in the NHS as it emerges from Covid-19 is the responsibility all of us have. We must shift our baselines back a hundred years – maybe more. This is urgent. Everyone must consider how we use our health service. That cough or rash that you might normally have seen your GP about – seems to have gone now doesn’t it?! That lack of exercise, my poor diet, that smoking habit – I can do something about that myself. No one else can help and we shouldn’t have to hold your hand. (Of course we do this and will continue to do so). Self care has been important during this lockdown. And yet, it shouldn’t be any more so now than any other time.


The problems with the health care system are clear. We all know about them. Covid-19 has affected us all and is scary. But perhaps it is the wakeup call that we all need.

Musings in Quarantine

With such nice weather, I hope you’re all staying inside! Quarantine is a funny old thing and through something like this we get to see both the best and worst of humanity. (It’s just unfortunate that, in a situation such as this, we are only as good as the worst of us). It’s gearing up to be a rocky few weeks with the day job so it’s nice to catch up with this sort of stuff in the downtime. 

So, while the covidiots rush out to their barbecues, the sensible people stay indoors and the Americans head out to buy loads of guns, I thought I’d update on the book. 

A couple of rejections thus far but most agents I have carefully selected have not yet got back. It’s worth saying that, having researched exactly what getting an agent represents to a fairly extensive degree, I have been selective in who I have gone for. It’s a given that I am looking for agents who have interests in books such as mine, but I am also going for those with non-fiction interests as well, not least because I have ambition to write in both arenas. Of course, when someone is recommended to you, that’s even better.

But here’s the thing. I don’t know if anyone else does the same (and even if they don’t admit it, I suspect they do) but I have been placing a significant emphasis on selecting those with whom I think I would work best based on how they look in their photographs. Where I can find interviews with them, even better. Call me superficial but I feel like I am a fairly good judge of character and so can usually gain a good idea of whether I would click with someone based on their appearance alone. 

They say don’t judge a book by it’s cover, but I’ve never heard anyone say that about agents so I’m going with it. I only hope they will adopt a similar approach when assessing my material. The whole process feels a bit like online dating and if history has taught me anything, it’s that I’m not very good at online dating. Time will tell. 

 

 

 

 

The Deep

This was written by one of the scientific advisers on the TV series Blue Planet. Alex Rogers is an esteemed marine biologist and, although he’s not the best writer out there, this is an engaging and interesting book. If I’m honest, some of the descriptive passages of the underwater reefs in extreme detail did get a little bit tedious, but when he starts talking about the environmental aspects, he really hits home. This is an important book and towards the end, he gets into the real nitty gritty. 

The impact we are having on the oceans is shocking, something only surpassed with our complicit lack of action. The conclusion is sensible and important and gives the reader a list of things they can do to help change things. Ultimately only time will tell if this is enough. 

Kings of the Yukon

This is a beautifully descriptive account of one man’s journey from source to mouth of the Yukon river. Aside from being an inspiring adventure travel book, it is also gives a good account of the salmon industry, giving wider perspective on the environmental issues as well. 

Would recommend. 

The birth of a new viral lexicon

All of this inevitably got me thinking about other words that, quite frankly, we should all be trying to create as a result of this crisis – or corisis

By now we are accustomed to hearing new words and phrases hitherto unheard of even a short while before. Of course the youth have almost an entire language to themselves. (This is quite a painful admission as I consider myself to be youthful still).

But in the age of Brexit, we as a species have begun to tinker with the English language in ever more ingenius ways. At present, there are 171,476 words in the Oxford Enlgish dictionary. There are many more unofficial ones in circulation, should you be streetwise enough to be using them. 

In 2019 there were 650 new words added to that number including whatevs, chillax, Jedi (which I think is cool and I’m surprsied it took this long) and sumfin (which is think is kind of mental).

Flashforward to now and we are in the midst of a global pandemic. It is bad and is only going to get worse so I wanted to focus on something positive. To that end, the fact that ‘covidiot‘ is now trending on twitter has brought a refreshing twist on humanity’s inherent stupidity. 

The word refers to those special individuals who rush out to panic buy toilet roll and pasta or those who think social distancing just isn’t for them. 

It’s not the only new word I’ve heard. Caremongering, the act of caring for those most vulnerable and encouraging others to do so, seems to be taking hold across the pond. It seems to have emerged from Canada which makes sense because – well, Canada. 

Presenteesim is the word for NHS workers who will lean towards going to work even if they are unwell which, in the current situation is not good. Under normal circumstances, I too have experienced this phenomenon, having crawled into work more than once feeling like the inside of John Mccririck’s underpants, only to be met by a smiling patient telling me they have had a cough for a few days. 

One of my favourites is the word for the cohort of babies born as a result of everyone being cooped up in isolation over the next few months. Coronials.

All of this inevitably got me thinking about other words that, quite frankly, we should all be trying to create as a result of this crisis – or corisis. Here are some of the best ones so far…

Quaranteens – The teenagers who are now home for the forseeable future since the schools closed, for which their parents are – I’m sure – ecstatic. 

Coronference call – As more and more of us begin to work from home, these are the ideal way to observe the social distancing measures while maintaining business efficiency. 

Whatsapp Thumb –  With friendship groups torn apart by the isolation, Whatsapp groups have gone wild. The chat within previously dormant groups has been going through the roof. Make sure you take precautions and limit your use lest you experience this painful condition. 

Covexit – The much sought after and mythical end to this epidemic. Who knows when we can reach it?

Recovid – My personal favourite here. With many people having already recovid from the disease, here’s hoping that many more will do the same. 

So there you have it. I’m sure there are plenty more of these so your suggestions are most welcome. Perhaps, by the time the next pandemic comes around (my money is on peronivirus) we may have a completely new set of vocabularly at the ready. 

WJ

 

Middle England

This was another that I bought on a whim. The first third reads a bit like a cheesey Radio 4 afternoon play (not that I listen to those but it’s how I imagine them to be). 

However, as it goes on, it actually becomes a genuinely thought provoking and therapeutic piece of writing. It is nothing we haven’t already heard but putting brexit and its build-up into the context of people’s lives gives the whole sorry state of affairs a bit of flesh. 

It doesn’t hold any answers necessarily but it is certainly an interesting read. Like many similar documentations however, the people that really need to read this sort of thing probably won’t. 

Early Riser

I had bought this book a while ago on a whim and it had been gathering dust on my shelf as I was concerned that, from its zany blurb, I would not like it. It was the sort of book I thought I would just get out of the way and move on. 

Turns out, it is actually one of my favourite books of the last few years. Seriously, it’s awesome. The plot is tight and keeps you guessing all the way through. Yes it’s zany and mad but that doesn’t matter because the alternate world is so imaginative and Fforde seems to have painted it just right somehow.

For me, it’s as if it all just aligned perfectly. A bit like a more sophisticated, adult oriented Roald Dahl book. Funny. Clever. Cool. 

Expedition

This documents expeditions to places people have never ventured before and I got this while attending a live talk from the man himself. Loved it! The kid in me sometimes wishes I’d gone down the same path as him. The TV shows that the book is based on really inspired me and I would love to get some expeditions under my belt. Life’s too short!

The book itself is well written, impressive considering it was done on the hoof while on location and in between various trips.