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.