Just Above Sunset
October 2, 2005 - The Nation's Health

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Our Man in London is Mike McCahill.

Mike McCahill was born in Warwickshire, England in 1978. He currently works as a film critic for The Scotsman, The Sunday Telegraph and the BBC, while trying to string together novels, screenplays and travel guides for places he's never actually been to. Mike divides his time between the Midlands and London, where professional duty requires he spend at least the first part of every week sitting in small dark rooms. With a couple of exceptions, he is open to offers.

This week has seen the Labour Party conference taking place in Brighton, on the South Coast. (Yes, I know, it's not an opening sentence that fills one with much in the way of expectation, but bear with me.) The conference has so far put on public display both the best of the Labour Party, and the worst.


The best: the announcement of a policy which will see junk food being banned from vending machines in all UK schools, thus - hopefully - halting a marked rise in obesity amongst the nation's young. (Of course, you can't legislate against parents picking their kids up from school and then bundling their children straight under the Golden Arches, nor indeed against pupils smuggling in their own illicit tuck, but - hey - it's a start.)


The worst: 82 year old Labour Party member Walter Wolfgang, a terrific character on the week's news bulletins, being forcibly removed from the conference hall after heckling during Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's speech on Iraq.


For the heinous crime of shouting "nonsense!" from the back of the hall, Mr. Wolfgang - who escaped Nazi Germany to came to Britain (and, boy, have the media reporting the story reveled in bringing up that particular fact) - was grabbed by security guards several sizes burlier than him, taken to a nearby police station, and held under the Anti-Terrorism Act.


Think about that. An 82-year-old man. Held under the Anti-Terrorism Act. For doing nothing more than shouting the word "nonsense!" during a speech by the Foreign Secretary. (And who said these new security measures wouldn't threaten our civil liberties?)


Anyhow, the aftermath has been a lot of huffing and puffing by the Labour hierarchy, and some kind of apology for general heavy-handedness being bandied about by the powers-that-be. I'm glad to report Mr. Wolfgang now has his delegate's laminate pass back, and that he received a hero's welcome on returning to the conference hall this afternoon. There has so far been no report on whether Mr. Straw has yet recovered from Mr. Wolfgang's verbal terrorism. (What would have happened if the heckler had instead used such words of mass destruction as "poppycock" or "tommyrot"?)


In the meantime, Tony Blair has been trotting out a lot of statistics. And I've been trying to make an appointment to see my doctor. Two apparently disparate facts, yet both are linked.


Blair is a fervent believer in the power of statistics, of cold hard data, to prove anything at any given time. This is a not uncommon belief amongst those required to debate, but - as, well, 97.57% of his policies have so far shown - Blair is more zealous and unshakeable in his beliefs than about 98.2% of anybody else around. He is 77% more likely than any other politician to come up with a statistic in his next public statement.


On Sunday morning, I chanced upon the Prime Minister reeling off such figures on a breakfast politics show. We were informed, in strictly statistical terms, about the percentage increase of funds allotted to healthcare. About the money put aside for education. About the recent numerical improvement in the nation's exam results.


And yet, the figures don't really tell the whole story. For all the academic achievement those improved exam results suggest, several employers of my acquaintance insist the graduates coming to see them on work placements or for interviews are illiterate, innumerate and lacking in vital interpersonal skills. To put it another way: they're short on all those qualities an exam can't teach you.


The same goes for the British health system. Blair's statistics suggest all is very much in shape. More funding. More doctors. More nurses. More resources to fight the "hospital super bug" MDSA.


Yet how come I can't get to see my doctor as easily as I'd like? Twice in the past week I've phoned his office in the afternoon, only to be told by the receptionist to phone back the following day between eight and nine in the morning. Why?, I asked. Because the surgery in question is operating a new system: patients can no longer book their appointments in advance, and have to phone on the day they wish to be seen. Again, I asked, why? Because too many patients were forgetting they had appointments in the first place.


Thanks to Mr. Blair's obsessive need for data, all surgeries in the UK now have to maintain strict targets of appointments made against appointments kept. The new system has been put into place to mitigate against the chance of a patient forgetting they have an appointment, and thus threatening the surgery's targets: if you ring up first thing in the morning, the thinking goes, there's less opportunity for you to lose track of time. You can, presumably, structure the rest of your day around keeping your appointment.


Which is all well and good, except there's one very obvious flaw in the system: what happens if you get ill after nine in the morning?


Thus we have a health service apparently geared more towards making Government targets than it is towards actual health care. It's a health lottery, a fast-food medical system, striving to get you in (if you're lucky enough to get in) and then get you out as soon as the appointment system will allow in order to get the next statistic - sorry, the next patient - ticked off the list.


Now I know that an Englishman complaining to America about the vagaries of his country's health system is a little like an American moaning to someone in Africa about not having breakfast and feeling a bit hungry. And for a 27-year-old in generally good health, who only wanted to get a patch of dry skin checked out, this may just have to go down as one of life's irritations. ("Honey, there's a man on the Internet writing about his dry skin. Should I cancel my subscription?")


But for, say, an 82-year-old (even one in as robust a condition as Walter Wolfgang), such delays in the health care system could well prove fatal. I hope Mr. Blair wises up sooner rather than later, but statistics are not the whole truth, and if I were a doctor, I'd like to think I'd prefer to run the risk of someone forgetting an appointment than be culpable for the death of one of my patients.



Mike McCahill

September 29, 2005.





Copyright 2005 – Mike McCahill

Email the author at mikemccahill@fastmail.fm






Editor's Note:


Related items in these pages -


April 17, 2005 - Healthcare in America is the Best? 

July 10, 2005 - Oh, Canada!  


At note of sympathy for the Brits, at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Laurel Avenue, 28 September 2005 –

Anglo-American Amity in Hollywood


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
See the Details page for the relevant citation.

This issue updated and published on...

Paris readers add nine hours....