This week we mark an anniversary which would normally never have even pinged on my radar: seventy years of the NHS. As a recent immigrant from the Colonies, the massive and apparently-endlessly bureaucratic NHS has been an interesting curiosity for me. Long since a supporter of single-payer healthcare in America, I was eager to see it put into action here across the pond.
Although many of the structural intricacies still elude me, I found myself face to face this week with the real work of the NHS. I ended up spending Tuesday night in the Watford General A&E after witnessing a man crash his motorbike earlier that evening. First, we were told an ambulance would take 4 hours to arrive. Originally I found this appalling and was really shocked- but then I tried to hear what the dispatcher would have heard on their end: a man is injured but not bleeding massively, he is awake and hasn’t lost consciousness, and he clearly has someone with him with a car (I phoned 999 for him.)
Although 4 hours is obviously an unacceptable time, considering the stretched resources of the system, it makes sense that we were a low priority. In America an ambulance would be there in 15 minutes or less, but you’d also get a bill for your bumpy ride to the hospital in the range of $5000.
So instead I drove this gentleman to Watford, and I stayed with him to help explain the situation to doctors and nurses. Some were kinder than others, some better about keeping us informed than others. In those hours of waiting I was often frustrated- but when I walked out at 3.30am and didn’t have to go collect the bill first I realised quite how unfair I’d been.
Yes, the NHS is stretched very thin. We should all be advocates for programmes and systems which provide basic services to all people and help ease the financial burden. I’m sure there’s tremendous disparity between areas and regions that have good resources and those that struggle extra. Yet, even at the ’emergency state’ they’re in, they have managed to do something no American healthcare provider can: provide good quality care to everyone, regardless of who they are.
American hospitals are often much nicer looking, often with faster service and better bedside manners- and I guarantee American ambulances are faster. Yet all of that is true only in wealthy areas, and only for some people, not for all. While those with means benefit from gleaming private rooms and express ambulance rides, far far more die out in the cold, in debt and denied their basic right to healthcare.
I didn’t realise it then, but my impromptu trip to the A&E actually was a fitting tribute to the NHS on its 70th birthday. I’m grateful to benefit from a system which makes serving all people a priority and I hope that we can work together to continue to enhance the efforts of the NHS in years to come. To those very many of you at SAMS who serve in the NHS, thank you, and to the often-flawed but very important 70 year experiment in public healthcare that is the NHS, happy birthday.
*Note: There will be no ‘A Thought for Thursday’ for the next two weeks, 5 and 12 July.*