Save the NHS: A Doctor’s Moving Defence of Her Profession, and How Care is More Important Than Budgets

6.2.12

Yesterday, I published an article about the Tory-led coalition government’s ongoing attempts to destroy the NHS, after the health minister Andrew Lansley issued a new set of amendments to his Health and Social Care Bill, in an attempt to suppress dissent in the House of Lords, which only succeeded in prompting GPs and physiotherapists to issue their own official opposition to the bill.

It is but no means clear that the government can be persuaded to scrap its bill, as the entire rationale for the coalition government’s existence seems to be to remove whatever remains in public ownership and to hand it over to the private sector, even though that particular approach to politics is exactly the opposite of what we need, after the unfettered greed of bankers and the private sector led to the economic crash of 2008, whose reverberations have, perhaps fatally, undermined the economic health of the West, even while, in the UK, cynical and thoroughly unqualified ideologues like David Cameron and George Osborne attempt to pin all the blame for Britain’s economic woes on the poor, the unemployed and the disabled.

This approach — and the way it is being lapped up by a majority of the British people — marks a particularly low point in my lack of respect for politicians or my fellow citizens, and I’ll be writing more about it soon, but for now, in an effort to maintain the focus on the NHS, and the need for persistent opposition to the government’s plans from anyone who understands how extraordinary it is to have a health service paid for by general taxation, which is free at the point of entry and exit, and how important it is to hold onto this service, I’m cross-posting below an article by Dr. Clare Gerada, the chair of the Royal College of GPs — whose members last week voiced their considerable opposition to the government’s planned reforms — which was published in October in the Guardian.

In it, she provided a particularly poignant explanation of why people choose to be part of a caring profession, and I hope it provides a reminder of why these motivations, rather than the lust for power and money that evidently drives David Cameron, George Osborne, Andrew Lansley and the sharks queuing up to dissect the NHS, are to be cherished and protected at all costs.

NHS doctors are under pressure to replace caring with market values
By Clare Gerada, The Guardian, October 20, 2011

I’d like to tell you a story about a GP, a radiologist, a pathologist and a psychiatrist. Sounds like the first line of a joke, but it isn’t. The GP was me.

We were having dinner with our children at an open-air opera in Germany. The place was packed. Everyone was having a good time, when the dreaded happened. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an elderly man fall headfirst into his plate.

The four of us looked at each other. We knew our meal was over and we swung into action. Each working to type. The psychiatrist tending to the man’s wife. The radiologist searching for a defibrillator. The pathologist pounding on the poor man’s chest. Me giving mouth-to-mouth.

From the way he keeled over, it was obvious he was dead. But we knew there was still plenty for us to do. We had to comfort his distressed wife. And we had to keep the crowd calm for 30 minutes, till the paramedics arrived.

When it was over, my 15-year-old son turned to me and said: “I want to be able to do that.”

“Do what?” I asked him.

“Care for people,” he said.

His reply surprised me. Not just because impressing teenage children isn’t easy. But because what impressed him wasn’t the glory and the drama of our public display of medical skill. No. What impressed him was our simple act of caring.

Caring for a sick man. Caring for the man’s wife. And caring for the people in the crowd. That’s what inspired my son.

And that’s how my father inspired me a generation ago. It wouldn’t be allowed now, but he used to take me with him on home visits in the postwar slums of Peterborough. I watched him treat children with measles and care for the dying in their homes. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a doctor.

Why did I tell you that story? Because I believe each of us has a story about what inspired us to become a doctor. A story that made us what we are today. A story that lights our way to the future.

Our stories have never been more important. Especially now, when our profession is under pressure to replace the language of caring with the language of the market.

We need to remind ourselves why we entered this honourable profession in the first place.

When I come home from work and my son asks me what sort of day I’ve had, on a good day I want to be able to say “I saved a life”, not “I met a budget”.

Of course, it’s important that GPs are mindful of resources. We have a responsibility to spend the public’s money carefully and wisely. That goes without saying.

But we must never lose sight of the patient as a person, at the heart of our practice. Patients are not “commodities” to be bought and sold in the health marketplace.

In this brave new cost-driven, competitive, managed-care world, I worry about the effect the language of marketing is having on our clinical relationships.

It’s changing the precious relationship between clinician and patient into a crudely costed financial procedure. Turning our patients into aliquots of costed tariffs and us into financial managers of care.

We are already embracing the language of the market when we talk about, for example, care pathways, case management, demand management, productivity, clinical and financial alignment, risk stratification.

We’re already accused of making “inappropriate referrals” whenever we put what’s best for our patients above what’s best for saving money.

We’re being forced to comply with referral protocols and so-called rules-based medicine, in an effort to control medical care before it’s delivered.

Referral management systems — already widespread — place a hidden stranger in the consulting room. A hidden stranger who interferes with decisions that should be made by GPs in partnership with their patients.

Insulting terms, like “frequent flyers”, are being used to describe people who are sick and need our care and attention.

The Archbishop of Canterbury attacked what he described as “the quiet resurgence of the seductive language of the deserving and undeserving poor”. If we don’t watch out, the deserving and undeserving poor could soon be joined by the deserving and undeserving sick.

I worry we’re heading towards a situation where healthcare will be like a budget airline. There’ll be two queues: one queue for those who can afford to pay, and another for those who can’t. Seats will be limited to those who muscle in first. And the rest will be left stranded on the tarmac.

This can’t be right. After all, no one chooses to be sick. We must hold fast to the principle that good healthcare should be available to all, regardless of wealth.

Of course, there have always been health inequalities. But my concern is that despite all the talk of reducing these inequalities, the size looks set to increase, not decrease.

So what about GP commissioning? Will it help us reduce health inequalities? And will it enable us to deliver better care to our patients?

People often tell me that GPs make good commissioners because of the population-focus we bring to care. After all as a profession we see 300 million patients per year. If anyone can be said to have their finger on the pulse of the nation, surely it’s us.

It’s an argument I’ve supported for decades. But we must tread carefully in this brave new world and do everything in our power to make sure it’s the public’s pulse we have our fingers on — not the public’s purse.

Which is why I believe that big decisions — decisions like whether to close hospitals — should be the responsibility of governments, not GPs. It’s the government’s job to decide how much we invest in healthcare and what services the NHS should provide.

Of course we should do our bit — we already do, by sitting on Nice, Sign and other committees. But governments should have ultimate responsibility for decisions about rationing healthcare, not GPs — guided and advised by us, for sure, but finally the decision must be taken by a publicly accountable body, not an individual doctor or a group of doctors.

We don’t shirk our responsibilities. Governments shouldn’t shirk theirs either. Rhetoric about putting doctors in charge doesn’t convince me. In this brave new world it’s the market — led by CEOs, shareholders and accountants — that will be in charge, not doctors.

We mustn’t allow ourselves to be compromised. Our first responsibility must be to the patient in front of us. Our next is to the patients in the waiting room. After that comes our responsibility to those on our list. And then to our local community, and finally the wider population. In that order.

I’ve always said that good commissioning is about being a good GP. It’s about understanding how we use resources fairly and effectively. But whatever happens we must make sure that the commissioning agenda isn’t allowed to compromise our relationship with the patient in front of us. We must not risk long-term benefits being sacrificed in favour of short-term savings.

How soon will it be, for example, before we stop referring for cochlear implant? An expensive intervention, but one that, in the long term, saves enormous amounts of public money. But not a saving from our budget.

How long will it be before we find ourselves injecting a patient’s knee joint — at Injections-R-us plc — instead of referring to an orthopaedic surgeon for a knee replacement?

And, once referred for hospital treatment, patients must be able to trust their doctors to base care on need and not on making money for the hospital.

If you think this is far-fetched, the Economist calculated that in 2009 the market-driven, corporate-dominated US healthcare system generated around $300bn of charges for unnecessary care.

This represented 10% to 12% of US healthcare spending for that year. This means women having unnecessary hysterectomies. This mean men having unnecessary angiograms. This means adolescents being given antidepressants for no reason. Do we want that here?

As doctors we risk being doubly compromised. We’ll have to choose between the best interests of our patients and those of the commissioning group’s purse. And, to make matters worse, we’ll also be rewarded for staying in budget — and not spending the money on restoring that child’s hearing. It goes by the quaint title of the “quality premium”. Now that’s what I call a perverse incentive.

We are told that one of the reasons clinical commissioning is being introduced is to reduce the spiralling costs of healthcare. But if the American experience is anything to go by, the opposite will be true.

Paul Ellwood, one of the founders of the American health maintenance system in the 1970s, had this to say in 1999 about what happened there: “A series of perverse economic incentives were instituted from top to bottom so as to seriously compromise the independent clinical judgments of physicians and other health professionals.”

He describes health maintenance organisations (which have the same function as our clinical commissioning groups) as finding themselves in “a deepening swamp of commercialism over service, of profiteering over professionalism, of denial or rationing of care where such care is critically needed, of depersonalisation of intensely personal kinds of relationships”. Is this what we want here?

The NHS can always be improved, but we must do it very carefully, so as not to lose what we and previous generations of doctors like my father have achieved.

As Allyson Pollock reminds us, the NHS was not an experiment. It wasn’t a mythical utopia either. The reality is that for more than 50 years it has delivered high-quality care for most patients, most of the time.

Can the market achieve similar outcomes? There is plenty of evidence that market-driven health services lead to limited choice, escalating costs, reduced quality. And let’s remind ourselves, the biggest health market in the world, the US, has achieved the remarkable double whammy of having the most expensive system in the world and the greatest health inequalities. It comes near the bottom of the league for most health outcomes — and boasts an unnecessary death every 12 minutes.

So what can we do? It would be easy to feel discouraged. But I know we all want the best for our patients, we always have and we always will. And as long as we do what we know to be right for patients, we will keep their trust.

And we can do this by ensuring that the systems we work in continue to allow us to work ethically and always as our patients’ advocates.

We must resist the encroachments of the market wherever it threatens our freedom to serve our patients and our communities. This is what those of you leading commissioning must promise us.

We have to get the actuaries, risk-adjusters and shareholders out of the health service, and put clinicians (not just medics) back in charge of it. And then we need to bring in management staff to advise and assist us. Staff who are truly committed to the values of our NHS.

We all became doctors because we wanted to make a positive difference to people’s lives. It would be hard to devise a better and more inspiring way of achieving this than through the provision of excellent general practice care, within a universal health service.

In times of austerity, we need to come together so that we can collaborate, co-operate and innovate — not compete against each other.

You expected me to talk about the health bill in England, but this bill, like other reorganisations across the whole of the UK, will come and go. Instead I have chosen to talk to you about what matters to our patients, now and for ever — a doctor who cares.

I am convinced that there are enough of us to create a revolution in healthcare. Not a revolution that the government is talking about in the bill – in structures, payments and competition. But a revolution in values.

One that will provide excellent care to our patients. Where in every interaction we pinch ourselves at the honour we have been given to be privy to their secrets and pain — and as Don Berwick says, “being allowed to be guests in their lives”.

My message to you is simple and clear. My son wanted to do medicine because of what he saw me and my friends do: care. If we want to keep serving the best interests of our patients, we must reject the language of the market and embrace the language of caring. And keep telling our stories.

Note: To keep up pressure on the government, please sign the 38 Degrees petition (which is currently very close to 500,000 signatures), and the Keep Our NHS Public e-petition on the government’s website (which is currently close to 50,000 signatures).

Also, if you’re in London, please attend a protest outside Parliament on Wednesday February 8, the day that the Health and Social Care Bill is due to reach report stage. This event is organised by Hackney Keep Our NHS Public, and takes place in Old Palace Yard, opposite the House of Lords, from 2.30 to 8.30 pm. For further information, contact Hackney Keep Our NHS Public.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

13 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Allison Lee-Clay wrote:

    tragically, Harper is following the US model…

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, and the big companies – McKinsey, KPMG etc. – are active throughout Europe as well, not just the UK, and are looking to make huge profits everywhere. It’s time to shake off the slumber of winter, open people’s eyes to the self-serving corruption and callousness and of their elected politicians, and get mobilized to resist everywhere that these sharks are operating.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Brena Easterday wrote:

    We are at a point where we have to make a decision between profit or value. They are not often the same.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Agreed, Brena. Unfortunately, since Thatcher and Reagan, governments and their lackeys in the mainstream media have worked hard to portray the pubic sector as lazy and the private sector as providing good value, when really everything that is of universal value cannot be run effectively by the public sector, because it is driven by profits and not by any other concerns. It says nothing for the intellect of the majority of my fellow citizens that these lies have been raging unchecked throughout my entire adult life, and that they have even survived the financial crash precipitated by the greed of the private sector when it is unregulated.

    When the public sector workers were on strike on Nov. 30 and I went down to the Embankment to show solidarity, I had an unedifying train journey with two men (very definitely not part of the ruling elite) whose sole commentary on public sector workers was, and I quote, “They want top dollar for doing f*ck-all.” Amongst the many aspects of public sector work that flooded through my mind in response, I particularly wondered if they had never been to hospital, or if they didn’t have children who went to school, as the venom with which they targeted doctors, nurses, teachers and every other public sector worker was extraordinary.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I’ll share this in several minutes as well as the White House one again, if there is any time left.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    Well, I just see that it is too late for the WH petition.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, the petition closed suddenly, George, once the time limit was reached. A pity, as it all now seems to have been a waste, but I’m trying to stay positive, as we will build on this first effort in the near future, and will learn from our experience.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    Right after I shared it, with an explanation of how to sign outside the US, I read that the time was up. Oh well. I just posted the NHS piece. A good statement. I’ve been writing and posting about the NHS and ATOS most of today.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    I thought we had until midnight Eastern time for the petition, George, and was rather unpleasantly surprised when suddenly it wasn’t there anymore. But it’s clearly time to come up with a new plan, and to hope that people will sign up again for something that is more responsive – calling for the release of Shaker Aamer is the most obvious approach to take, I believe.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Graham Williams wrote:

    Particularly the GPs? We had already come out in total opposition… and it’s not due to pure greed and individualistic self thought, our reason as espoused by Mr Lansley. I don’t even have an NHS pension. Such a vile, condescending and typical retort by people who know no other way to think, or care…

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    I certainly didn’t mean to misrepresent the GPs’ position, Graham. I’m glad you’re still as angry as you are at these lying incompetents masquerading as the government.

  12. Christine Roberts says...

    I want to keep fighting for the NHS but feel I have no power over all these corporate organizations. I lived in the US and saw the cost of health care. I saw what happened when people were turned away because they had no insurance.
    Perhaps Scotland or Wales is the place to live – so sad that the Condems have sold our soul.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Christine. I do understand. I wish there was more opposition out on the streets, as I fear the erosion of the NHS will continue, and too many people will only realize what they’ve lost when it’s gone.

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