The Crumbling NHS

Pic: An NHS hospital in East Anglia, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“About a year and a half ago, I went to Chile with my uni course. While I was there, I was having these chronic headaches. I’d always had them, but they were really bad then.”

Allan is 21, and seems the picture of health. But barely 18 months ago, he was having brain surgery. He suffers from hydrocephalus, a condition which prevents the fluid in his skull from draining the way it ought to.

“I got an MRI in Lima, and they immediately spotted the problem. I had surgery as soon as I landed back in the UK”, he tells me. “But before then I’d had three MRI scans with the NHS, and they couldn’t see any problems at all.”

Allan’s experiences have left him extremely sceptical of the National Health Service. He’s not alone – in December 2017, stories about the failures of the British health system are commonplace in the media.

In recent weeks, there have been reports of NHS trusts turning away A&E patients, NHS neglect leading to the suicide of a Bristol teen and a large overpayment for thyroid medication. Some of this is likely linked to the insidious influence of Peppa Pig, but it is impossible to say quite how much.

As we move into the Christmas season, with its below-freezing nights and regular drinking, the NHS workload is likely to increase during the coming weeks. The calendar, combined with the resignation of NHS trust chief Lord Kerslake, has many hand-wringing about the impending (or ongoing) crisis.

Not everyone is panicking, however. Kate Andrews, an American emigre currently serving as News Editor at the Institute of Economic Affairs, has been making impassioned cases against the NHS for years.  Speaking at an IEA event in 2017, Ms Andrews said that the NHS “is not special” and needs to “look to it neighbours, look toward Asia” to figure out how to evolve and improve.

In his London flat, Allan agrees. “As a psychology student, I do see a few things about how the NHS treats mental health that really concern me. Cognitive behavioural therapy is a big one. It’s the go-to treatment because it’s cheap, but the effectiveness of it compared to what they do in other countries is really low”. 

Critics of the NHS say that is structured in a way that stifles innovation. Some have even called it “stalinist”, governed as it is by five year plans. Yet this criticism may not be entirely fair. Slowly, change is creeping into the system.

This year saw the launch of a new online GP service powered by Babylon Healthcare, and the Health Secretary has commissioned an app which will consolidate publicly available information to allow the public to check their symptoms against any potential ailments.

Yet there remain deep and fundamental issues that will go unsolved into this most trying time of the year. Health outcomes are poor, beds are in short supply and even the Health Secretary is admitting to “bottlenecking” in the service he operates. When I ask Allan if he’ll be avoiding the NHS over the next month, he just smiles wordlessly. He’s planning on avoiding it indefinitely.