The Francis report this week highlighted some terrible shortcomings in our hospitals, and in the provision of care for some of society’s weakest members.
It tells of horrifying and haphazard, inhumane healthcare that quite rightly makes relatives weary with ire and grief, and the rest of us feel like cogs in a machine, rather than individuals who need looking after.
It’s only right that these shortcomings should be investigated and exposed in order to be avoided in future. But they shouldn’t be taken as inevitable proof that the NHS isn’t working, or that it is a Bad Thing, or even as in any way emblematic of what the service offers. We would do well to remember that things would be a lot worse if the NHS didn’t exist – something that the pundits and the papers seem to have forgotten as they defend us against state-sanctioned sadists up and down the land, whose shoddy work puts us all at risk of the sort of tragic ends that were met at Stafford Hospital.
But implying that what happened in that hospital is par for the course in a system that has all sorts of detractors – including, bafflingly, a majority who are happy enough to take what they can from it while complaining that it simply isn’t up to scratch – is a kind of sensationalism that is irresponsible, and simply not based in fact. Convincing people to be scared of their doctors, encouraging them to mistrust the profession, is yet another kick in the eye for a wheezing health service that is under huge pressure to function more fluently with ever-decreasing funding.
Allowances must be made and the greater good acknowledged. That’s not to say that what happened within the Mid Staffs Trust wasn’t utterly deplorable. But the NHS provides a service that we all of us need and which, for the most part, works. With the NHS, we are not customers, thank goodness. Your stay in hospital doesn’t come with a star rating – it comes with a promise to do as much for you as is possible, both according to your prognosis and that of the rickety system itself.
I understand the frustration of those people whose relatives died unnecessarily, through neglect and malpractice. I understand that, to them, the scenario smacks of corporate interest and ineptitude. I cannot begin to fathom the pain of losing someone you love in the knowledge that they were not made comfortable in their final days, that their needs went unnoticed, or worse: that they could have survived. It is intolerable, unbearable.
And yet, those cases are the minority. A century ago, when laissez-faire was a way of life rather than a tabloid war cry, they were not. A century ago, people died from things that the NHS can – and regularly does – fix.
When I had to rely on the NHS just over a year ago, I found it confusing and isolating. I broke my leg and the doctor missed it, so I lay in a berth, my leg in four pieces, for two hours. When they reset it, they did it wrong, so they had to do it again, a double agony. During a week-long stay in hospital, nobody told me what was going on, or what I could expect to happen and when. There were flashes of kindness; there were glimpses of the sort of bedside manner you see on telly. But that was it.
I came to the conclusion that frills and niceties – although not, of course, basic human decency – go out of the window in many cases; they have to, because of the sheer scale of need that the NHS faces every single minute. I am a strong young woman in her twenties; I realise I am more resilient than a pensioner. But we must be more realistic in our vision of what the health service can give us: the starched, smiling matron doesn’t exist any more, because various Tory governments decided she was too expensive.
Do I want to complain about it? No, not in the slightest. I can walk, I can run, I am healed. A century ago, I might have died. One cannot expect an operation as vast and as under-funded, as fatally flawed as it is universal, to function in the same way as a boutique hotel, or a restaurant – even as a private hospital. These tragic mistakes in Staffordshire are a fraction of the NHS, not a synecdoche for it; woeful as they are, they are far from indicative.
Round criticism of the NHS in its current state is like jumping up and down on a pianist’s fingers and then saying he isn’t very good. It’s like expecting a prize-fighter to trounce his opponent after a bout of dysentery. We treat the NHS the way a matador does a bull: with every blade we plunge into it – every swinge, every redundancy, every sell-off, every private health insurance contract taken out – we dance round it wondering why it doesn’t continue to act like the sturdy animal it once was.
Some of us think paying our taxes is the same as putting something on our credit cards. It isn’t: tax is a duty, and the NHS is a gift. To decry it as failing when it still demonstrably helps more than harms is to denounce the thousands of human faces behind the logo, who carry on despite the conditions and the pay to help us when we need them. We must start being grateful to the NHS – it won’t be around much longer.
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