Health Check: 'Certain newspapers want to destroy the NHS - they deserve a kicking'

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Congratulations to the Methodist Church on its competition for an 11th Commandment. It was a brilliant wheeze, and elicited the contradictory but wise "Thou shalt not be negative" - henceforward to be printed on beer-mats across the land. More than 2,000 entries were submitted by text message - it was the Methodists' attempt to get in touch with today's youth - and there were some witty also-rans, of which my personal favourite is: "Thou shalt not consume thine own bodyweight in fudge."

But among commandments appropriate for the modern world, few can beat the imprecation to be positive. Dr John Reid, the Health Secretary, appears to think so, too, judging by the dressing-down he has given me and my colleagues lately. So frustrated has he become at negative reporting of the NHS that, if he had his way, the commandment would be stamped on the foreheads of every health reporter - preferably with a branding-iron.

It is never a good idea to bash the messengers, but the pugilistic Dr Reid thinks it is time that we tasted a bit of our own medicine. And while I sympathise with some of my colleagues who feel personally, and unjustly, attacked - one told me, "I report the facts accurately, it's my editors who twist it to say what they want it to say" - I confess to feeling a sneaking delight that there's someone in charge of the NHS with the balls to kick back. Certain newspapers are out to destroy the NHS, yet they remain unassailable, free to pursue their poisonous agenda unhindered. They deserve a kicking.

Yet negative thinking has infected us all, even those of us who support the NHS. Take a look at the latest waiting-list figures, presented at a low-key press conference 10 days ago by the heads of the Downing Street and Health Department delivery units. Two years ago, there were over 100,000 patients who had waited more than nine months for an operation, almost half of them for more than a year. Today, bar a handful of residual cases, all these have been cleared. No one now waits longer than nine months for an operation in the NHS.

That is still far too long, of course. But there's more. Two years ago, there were around 250,000 patients who had waited over six months. The Government's target is to eliminate these by December 2005 - a "much greater challenge", as officials concede - but the latest figures show that the total has been cut by 60 per cent, to around 100,000, and the trend is on course to hit the target.

Impressed? I was, but, so far as I can tell, the news received zero coverage (my excuse is that I had done a story on it the week before). There is the problem of newsdesk fatigue ["that's enough about waiting-lists - ed"], and the well-worn journalistic cliché that good news never sells as well as bad. But improvements in the NHS are now happening with sufficient consistency for us already to have become complacent about them.

The problem with Dr Reid's combative approach, however, is that, as he well knows, not everything is going as well as the waiting-list figures. You only have to read the extraordinary diary by my colleague Christina Patterson of her breast-cancer treatment, published on these pages last Monday, to have your faith in the NHS seriously shaken. It is a catalogue of quite breathtaking incompetence and insensitivity, and would make any sane person want to shut down the NHS and beg Bupa to take over tomorrow.

But negative thinking on the NHS is not confined to the media. Among the worst culprits are the people who work in the NHS, the doctors and nurses themselves. The British Medical Association was at it again last week with a "survey" [sic] of "doctors who give up medicine because they feel undervalued by the NHS".

The "survey" turned out to be a list of anecdotes from 14 men and women who, after qualifying, discovered that medicine was not for them. One complained of being made to sleep, while on call in the hospital, in "a scruffy room with paint peeling off the walls and no heating, and the door doesn't shut properly and there's nothing in it".

It is for readers to decide whether this sounds like sufficient reason to give up a career that offers intellectual challenge, limitless variety, an excellent income, total job security and that is universally valued. He or she sounds like a spoilt brat to me.

Anyone can make a mistake in their choice of career. But for doctors, who are infinitely luckier than most, to whinge about their lot, befits them ill. And for the BMA to publish such whingeing is incomprehensible. I suggest that those responsible repair to their local hostelry and, over a pint or two, consider what is written on the beer-mats.

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