The real choice: public or private squalor

After Darzi, patients are still treated as poor supplicants or truculent consumers prone to outbursts of violence.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

Topics Politics

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I arrived at my GP surgery in London one day last month, during the British Medical Association’s (BMA) ‘Support Your Surgery’ campaign, to find the door encased by a massive roll-down metal screen. This is supported by a crudely constructed buttress in which neither the brick work nor the mortar matches the existing building. Shoddily built by the old area health authority in the 1970s, our health centre has never had any pretensions to architectural distinction. Now, on the initiative of the Primary Care Trust, our latest landlords, the centre welcomes patients to enter through what looks like the gate of a lock-up garage or a military bunker.

Wishing NHS general practice ‘a very happy sixtieth birthday’, the BMA’s campaign invites patients to sign a petition calling on the prime minister ‘to support our existing NHS surgeries’. It protests against the takeover of surgeries by ‘commercial companies who are accountable primarily to shareholders rather than patients’. But nobody consulted our patients about the new barricade. Needless to say, neither were the staff consulted (though we had been complaining for around 10 years about the state of decay of the old wooden doors).

In the traditions of austerity and poor workmanship associated with the public utilities and nationalised industries, our rotten old surgery doors transmitted a message of contempt for patients. The high security features of the new gates add a new element of hostility. We are, after all, in inner city Hackney, where, by implication, patients should be expected to put up with low standards of public amenities, which now need to be fortified against the presumed threat of local criminality. (We have had one minor burglary in our surgery in 20 years.)

According to the BMA’s petition ‘toolkit’, we should strive to ‘ensure that patients and the general public are aware of the high-quality services that their local GP surgery provides’. We like to think that we provide high quality services, but we cannot escape responsibility for the fact that, on the sixtieth anniversary of the NHS, we are still struggling to do so in shabby and overcrowded conditions. If the gates are menacing, the toilets are disgusting.

The facilities in our purpose-built health centre may be grim, but they are superior to those in smaller nearby surgeries in adapted residential premises where, in the early decades of the NHS, running water was often considered a luxury.

A recent visit to a local surgery that has been handed over to a commercial company suggests that privatisation will do little to improve standards or staff-patient relationships in general practice. The first person I met, at the door of prefabricated cabins protected by an extensive wire fence, was a burly bouncer, considered necessary by the new management to protect a rapidly turning-over staff of doctors and nurses from the anticipated wrath of the patients. For the first six decades of the NHS, staff in primary care somehow managed without implicitly threatening patients with violence.

The BMA, which bitterly opposed the introduction of the NHS 60 years ago and continued to fulminate against ‘nationalised’ health care into the 1960s, has now discovered a deep commitment to publicly provided health care (1). But even when they are armed with the BMA’s ‘toolkit’, GPs are unlikely to succeed in rallying patients to support ‘our existing surgeries’. Why should patients support surgeries in which they are treated, at best, like poor supplicants expected to display appropriate deference and low expectations, or at worst, like truculent consumers at risk of anti-social behaviour?

Like the public-private partnerships in the hospital sector, the government’s promotion of privatisation in primary care seems to be driven by a combination of dogma and a commitment to subsidise ailing capitalist enterprise. As a result, it seems that, once the creditors and investors and managers have taken their cut, patients in New Labour’s new NHS will be faced with a novel choice in GP surgeries: public squalor – or private squalor.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is author of MMR and Autism: What Parents Need to Know (buy this book from Amazon(UK)) and The Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

This article was originally published in the July 2008 issue of the British Journal of General Practice.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill criticised the latest Darzi review of the NHS. Last year, Dr Michael Fitzpatrick argued that Darzi’s interim report on the NHS profoundly misunderstood Britain’s ‘health crisis’ and that New Labour’s ‘patient-centred’ reforms are a real threat to the quality of healthcare in Britain. Josie Appleton questioned the point of politicians promising more and more health care options that nobody asked for in the first place. Emily Hill met a family that didn’t trust NHS Direct. Or read more at spiked issue NHS.

(1) The Five Giants: A Biography Of The Welfare State, Nicholas Timmins, Fontana, 1996

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Topics Politics


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