A year on I still don’t know what’s wrong with my wonky eye… but I’ve seen why the NHS needs emergency surgery
By Tom Utley
Over my decades of grumbling in the news-papers about the trials and tribulations of everyday life, I’ve grown very used to having the red carpet rolled out for me after my complaints have appeared in print.
There was the time I wrote about the huge difficulties I encountered when I tried for more than six months to close my cable television account with Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Media.
As soon as the article appeared, the company put everything right and I received a charming letter of apology, signed ‘Richard’, from the great man’s private island in the Caribbean.
On another occasion, I wrote a column cursing lastminute.com, after its idiotic computer charged me for four seats on a flight to Glasgow, instead of the two my son had thought he’d booked.
Until my piece appeared, the firm refused even to investigate my complaint unless I agreed to pay an ‘administration fee’ of £45 — which, like a true wronged Englishman, I didn’t. So it was stalemate.
But no sooner did my article hit the streets than I received an email from Brent Hoberman, multi-millionaire co-founder of lastminute.com, agreeing to refund the disputed £233.67 and promising to look at the possibility of reprogramming his computers so that they wouldn’t make a similar mistake again.
Now, it may be that this is the sort of gold-star treatment that Richard and Brent (as I seem to have permission to call them, though I’ve never met either) offer to all their customers when they get to hear about grievances.
But the cynic in me suspects people who don’t happen to have a regular outlet for their woes in the international media may not always be as fortunate as I have been.
So it was that when I wrote here, six months ago, about my treatment by the NHS over a problem with my left eye, I feared that this would be the last time I could write about my experiences of the service from the point of view of the ordinary patient in the waiting room.
Indeed, a couple of very kind readers, fellow patients at Croydon University Hospital, told me they’d tipped off the staff in the eye unit, asking them to look after me especially well next time.
So it was with mixed feelings that I arrived for my appointment in December, ten days after my article appeared. It’s always nice to get the red carpet treatment, of course.
But it’s also rather embarrassing to be singled out for it (not to mention unfair on others) — and you’ll just have to believe me when I say this has never been my intention when I’ve written about my life’s little irritations.
But I needn’t have worried. For if my latest experiences are any guide, one thing to be said for the good old NHS is that it doesn’t believe in giving preferential treatment to anyone, whether a news-paper columnist or not. Quite right, too.
My complaint, then as now, is not against any of the staff I’ve met, but against the hugely inefficient structure and working practices of the NHS
Before I go any further, I must stress once again that I have no horror story to tell about the way my case has been dealt with. As I wrote last time, I’ve suffered no pain or discourtesy.
Indeed, everybody at the hospital has treated me with great kindness and politeness since a blind spot suddenly appeared in my left eye in July last year.
My complaint, then as now, is not against any of the staff I’ve met, but only against the hugely inefficient structure and working practices of the NHS.
I’m thinking of the long delays in fixing appointments, which always seem to be made to suit the doctor, not the patient. Then there are the hours of thumb- twiddling we have to spend in the waiting room, as the clock ticks way past the time agreed.
And, all too often, when at last we get to see the doctor, there’s the sense that the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing. Work is duplicated, notes lost and appointments cancelled at the last minute.
My point is that while an abstract debate goes on in Parliament, with politicians vying with each other to declare their ‘passion’ for the NHS, vast numbers of us are enduring the sort of treatment from the service that would have us boiling with rage if we were subjected to it by anyone else.
How would you feel if your hairdresser said: ‘Sorry, madam, I know your appointment for a wash and blow-dry was for 10 o’clock. But if you’d just like to wait there, I should be ready for you by 12.15’?
Or what if the hotel you’d booked for the night said that your room had been given to somebody else, and you’d have to come back in five weeks’ time? Yet this goes on all the time in the NHS — and the extraordinary thing is that most of us just accept it, as if there could be no better way.
But back to my own case which, to judge by a great many letters I’ve received, is absolutely typical (although I should say that many have had much happier experiences than mine, while many have had much worse).
When I last reported, I was awaiting that December appointment, five months after my eye went wonky, half-dreading and half looking forward to that red carpet treatment. Cue hollow laughter.
After the usual two-hour wait, an ophthalmologist examined me, told me he was puzzled that I’d been sent to him for laser treatment (Had I? This was news to me), since he couldn’t see anything in my eye worth lasering.
Then he sent me away for a blood test downstairs and told me to make an appointment with the unit’s optometrist. The earliest she could manage was more than a month away, on February 3 at 11am.
So I arranged to take that morning off work. But at 9.10am, the unit rang to cancel the appointment, saying the optometrist was off sick. Not to worry. She could see me two weeks later, on February 17.
When that day came, I didn’t have to wait more than about 20 minutes. But there was a difficulty. My notes had gone missing, and she wasn’t quite sure what was supposed to be looking for. Whatever it was, she didn’t find it, but she was sure the ophthalmologist would be able to help when he was next free, in five weeks’ time. So much for the red carpet.
Which brings me to my most recent appointment, on March 24. This time, I had to wait two hours and 15 minutes, leafing idly through the May 2010 edition of Refurbishment And Renovation News, which was the most exciting reading matter on offer in the waiting room.
Health secretary Andrew Lansley is finally getting support for his proposals for NHS reform
Health secretary Andrew Lansley is finally getting support for his proposals for NHS reform
When the ophthalmologist finally examined me, he said he was still mystified by my condition and sent me away for another test. Half an hour later, he looked at the results and told me that I did indeed appear to have a blind spot in my left eye.
(Well, yes, that was rather why I’d begun this palaver eight months previously.) I’d need a blood test, he said. You sent me for one last time, in December, I said.
‘Oh, so I did,’ he said, checking my notes, which had miraculously turned up by now.
Nothing to worry about there, he said, although it was just possible that I drank a little more than was good for me. Otherwise, it was conceivable — though very unlikely — that I might have suffered a cerebral infarction. I nodded wisely, though it was only later, when I looked it up in the dictionary, that I realised with a twinge of alarm that he was talking about a stroke.
Anyway, the news for the many kind readers who have expressed an interest is that I’m not really much closer to knowing what’s wrong with my eye than I was on July 12, 2010, when this saga began.
But while I wait for my next appointment, on July 24, I do feel I’m a great deal closer to understanding the imperative need to introduce some competition into the NHS.
This is why I’m hugely encouraged that Tory MPs appear this week to be rallying round the Health Secretary’s proposed reforms — and why I wish them every success against the attempts of their former champion, Nick Clegg, to sabotage them.
Don’t ask me whether Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s solutions are the right ones to give all long-suffering NHS patients a glimpse of the red carpet. But, for heaven’s sake, let’s give them a go. For, surely, we can’t go on like this.
Hospitals fined at least £665,000 for placing patients in mixed-sex wards
More than four in ten hospitals will be fined for treating patients in mixed-sex wards. Under strict new Government rules, trusts which force people to share accommodation with the opposite sex face penalties of £250 a time. In the last month alone 2,260 patients suffered the indignity of being treated on a mixed-sex ward, according to figures from the Department of Health.
And 42 per cent of 166 hospitals in England and Wales reported ‘sleeping breaches’ – the official term for a night which a patient spends in mixed-sex accommodation – at some point in April.
It means that hospitals should collectively be fined £665,000, although the Department of Health said the exact amount would be clarified over the coming weeks.
The Daily Mail has long campaigned against the scandal of patients being forced to share wards with the opposite sex. It is now 15 years since Tony Blair first called for the abolition of mixed wards, saying it should not be ‘beyond the collective wit’ of ministers to achieve.
The pledge to scrap them was also contained in Labour’s 2001 manifesto, but eventually Labour concluded that it would be too expensive to get rid of them all.
When the Coalition came to power last year it promised to scrap mixed accommodation in all but intensive care and A&E wards, where it is impractical to separate patients based on their sex.
Hospitals have been reporting the number of breaches since December, but fines were introduced only last month. Figures show that the rates have gradually come down as the threat of the impending fines drew closer.
In December 11,362 patients were put in mixed-sex accommodation with just under half of hospitals reporting sleeping breaches. By March this total had halved to 5,446, although the percentage of hospitals breaking the rules at some point during the month remained the same.
Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said: ‘Labour repeatedly broke their promises to fix the scandal of mixed-sex accommodation. They denied there was a problem but we are sorting it out.
They kept saying it wasn’t happening – but we all knew it was. Patients deserve to be treated with dignity. ‘That’s why we published data on breaches for the first time and rolled out fines for hospitals that fail to comply. And since last December, numbers of patients being placed in mixed sex wards are down by 77 per cent.’
The Department of Health guidance states that patients should not even have to walk through a ward treating the opposite sex to gain access to bathrooms and toilets, although this would not incur a fine.
The latest monthly figures show that across England the breach rate is 1.9 per 1,000 patients. But this varies by region, with the South East coast reporting the highest rate of 5.1 breaches per 1,000. The lowest was in the East of England, at 0.6 per 1,000.
Once again homosexuals get a better deal in Britain
William Blake’s rousing hymn Jerusalem is at risk of becoming ‘reserved for homosexual couples’, a Labour MP has warned. Former Anglican priest Chris Bryant highlighted the conflicting rules governing the use of the anthem – which was sung at the Royal Wedding – for ceremonies.
Heterosexual couples marrying in church find ‘many clergy refuse to allow it to be sung because it’s not a hymn addressed to God’, he said. Yet if the same couple were to have a civil service they could not use it because of its religious nature.
But the Government now plans to allow same-sex ceremonies with ‘a religious aspect’ to use the song.
The openly gay former Foreign Office Minister told the Mail: ‘I am fighting for the rights of straight couples’. ‘The government is now changing the rules to allow religious symbols at civil ceremonies for same sex couples. ‘But in the interests of equality, the same should apply to heterosexual couples getting married in civil venues. ‘It seems odd to say you can’t have Jerusalem for a straight wedding yet you can have it at the same place for a gay wedding.’
Yesterday he told MPs that ‘many clergy will refuse to allow it to be sung because it’s not a hymn addressed to God’.
He asked Commons Leader Sir George Young to investigate, saying: ‘Can we just make sure that Jerusalem is not just reserved for homosexuals?’ Sir George, the senior Conservative, paused before replying: ‘I think that Jerusalem should be sung on every possible occasion.’
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: ‘Jerusalem was sung at the Royal Wedding and the Prime Minister thought it was a jolly good idea.’
The song is also sung at rugby matches by England fans, was adopted as the official song for the English football team and is sung at the end of every Labour Party conference.
Jerusalem was written in 1804 as a poem by William Blake, as an introduction to his much lengthier work, Milton a Poem.
Sir Hubert Parry composed the music to it in 1916 and it has become England’s most patriotic song. But its hints to a possible visit by Jesus to England have sparked controversy. Jerusalem also touches on the ‘dark Satanic Mills’ of the Industrial Revolution. Labour has reinterpreted the song’s call to ‘build Jerusalem’ as a reference to social mobility.
Its wide-ranging and ambiguous references have made it controversial in both civil ceremonies and churches. However last year, the Church of England called on vicars to allow them to use the hymn at weddings. The church said that while ‘opinion on the matter is strongly divided’, allowing it to be sung could be the ‘preferable decision from a pastoral point of view’.