If I want to see a doctor, don’t fob me off by sending me to the pharmacist

There is a problem with the demand placed on the NHS. But that’s not patients’ fault

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The Independent Online

In my first week of journalism training, our lecturers staged a press conference with doctors and health chiefs to give us some practice of asking critical questions. We were given stock answers about how the NHS was like an oil tanker, and the time it took to turn it around. That was 16 years ago, yet the tanker, it seems, still points in the wrong direction. It was good practice indeed.

The NHS is still imperfect, the A&E system is in crisis, and GP out-of-hours services don’t work properly. We patients are given plenty of advice about how to help improve the NHS – poster adverts telling us not to turn up at casualty with a sprain, or to stay at home with paracetamol if we think we have flu. Now, there is a new instruction designed to ease pressures: go to your pharmacist instead of the GP.

At first glance, this proposal, from professional bodies including the Royal College of GPs, sounds sensible. You don’t have to make an appointment, and some pharmacists are open longer hours than surgeries – many, crucially, at weekends. Too many people are turning up at the doctor’s with runny noses and sore  throats when they could be treated with over-the-counter remedies.

But as anyone who has to use their pharmacy frequently will tell you, this is madness. Of course the “worried well”, as some anxious individuals are described, are getting in the way of legitimate patients needing proper, fast treatment. But whenever I go to my local chemist, the wait for prescriptions alone can be longer than 20 minutes. The pharmacy is always busy, the assistants and chemists rushed off their feet. Asking for a consultation would take up their time, and many pharmacies don’t have the space for a private room – sometimes it is just a screen. Then there is the question of trust. Pharmacists groups insist that their members have five years’ medical training, and can spot danger signs in a patient, but are they really suggesting that a quick chat with a person in an open, busy chemist can identify what could be a serious illness?

Just like the poster campaign that warns people not to go to A&E if they think they’ve sprained their wrist, this latest “advice” about using pharmacists is contrived to offload the blame from a struggling NHS and on to patients, rather than on to managers and ministers. We are made to feel guilty for the queues of ambulances outside hospitals, for the bed-blocking on wards, all because of a failure to diagnose our own health problem. “Minor injury?” asks the finger-wagging poster advert, “go to a walk-in centre”. Except 53 out of 230 walk-in centres have closed under the Coalition. “Not an emergency? – dial 111.” Except that the 111 service remains, nearly a year after its introduction, patchy at best. Now even our local GP surgery, which should be the reliable, trustworthy heart of our community seems to be off-limits.

There is, undoubtedly, a problem with demand placed on the NHS. But it’s not the fault of patients, the majority of whom don’t trouble GPs and hospitals out of fun but out of fear for their health or that of their children. As I’ve said before, the fault lies with successive governments: Labour spent billions trying to turn that tanker around, but money was not targeted at the right places, and ministers connived with GPs to let them off treating patients in evenings and at weekends. Now this Government overhauls the entire service, with confusion and cuts making us all wait longer.

I’ll have a bottle of Britpop, please

If you’re in your late 30s or early 40s, the chances are that the Britpop chart battle between Blur and Oasis was one of the highlights of your youth. You were either with the scruffily insouciant Gallagher brothers or the middle class art-school poseurs. Despite my northern upbringing,  I picked Blur – perhaps because we Scousers can never like anything from Manchester, or perhaps because Blur’s music was simply better.

So to an ageing nostalgia-seeker like me, it is wondrous news that Alex James, Blur’s bassist turned cheese-maker, has registered the brand name Britpop and is planning to bring out a line of fizzy drinks, including non-alcoholic sherbet beverages. James has forged a success from his Cotswold farm with his own varieties of cheese, yet fizzy drinks sound a bit more risky. It might be naff, but I don’t care – to let me relive my youth, I’ll have a crate, please.

Twitter: @janemerrick23