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COLIN CAMPBELL: No wonder the ‘free’ NHS is buckling right now


By Colin Campbell

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Raigmore Hospital
Raigmore Hospital

The health service is seldom out of the headlines these days for a range of negative reasons. But when I think about the services provided by the NHS my predominant feeling remains one of gratitude. This is due in no small measure to the bill – or at least the costs – I’ve run up on the NHS tab in recent years.

It’s not difficult to find out the cost of an operation, easily revealed if it was done privately. Up to the age of 60 I was surgery-free, but since then I’ve had three dealing with different problems, the most recent a couple of weeks ago. None was “major” and none was cheap either, although they obviously didn’t cost me a penny.

Some people would fiercely contest the view that they were therefore “free”, saying we pay national insurance all our working lives. Well, they’d be correct that we do pay up over the long term for medical treatment when it’s needed, but these operations at the time seemed pretty free to me.

A quarter of the population of the Highlands is now over the age of 65, the latest census figures have revealed. Does that place a heavy burden on health services in this region? More like a potentially crushing weight.

Concern over health is at the highest level among so many people. I’m in the age group where it is a wholly inevitable topic of conversation, often in even the most casual encounter.

It’s always been like that among older people but what adds to the anxiety these days is relentless warnings of unprecedented pressure on services, cancellations, and long delays for treatment. In previous times there was a confident assumption that if you needed surgery or hospital treatment you would get it, when and where required. That reassurance has now wobbled, collapsed, and been confined to intensive care.

And how much pressure are surgical and other medical teams under? When I was in Raigmore one day in November, nurses were talking about how busy one surgical team was that day. “They haven’t even had time for breakfast,” one nurse said.

Click here to read more from Nicky Marr

I didn’t ask what hours they’d been working or how long they’d been working, but these words struck me as an oddly distinctive reminder that surgeons are only human, and do indeed need breakfast like everyone else. Which that morning they had had no time to consume.

Kate Forbes, quite likely to be the next First Minister after the SNP dump Humza Yousaf, recently warned of a dire future for the NHS and called for a “national conversation” on its future. What that would yield, who knows? What we do know is that virtually any proposals for reform hit a brick wall of protest over claims of “sell-off” and “privatisation”, most often led by leading lights in the SNP.

Any hint of any charges being imposed in the “free at the point of use NHS” – even a small penalty for carelessly missing a GP appointment – inevitably leads to uproar. Alternately, many people are choosing – or being forced – to go private for operations and paying out thousands.

With regard to my recent experience, I join with so many who have praised Raigmore nurses and doctors to the highest. I went to the hospital full of the pre-op jitters and within minutes of entering was relaxed and at ease because of the welcoming and reassuring manner of the brilliant staff there.

But quite inevitably as people live longer and treatment advances, the costs will continue to pile up. How long the current system can prevail has surely never been more uncertain. These days, far from being apprehensive about an operation it’s a relief to get it done in a system under huge pressure where long waiting lists are the norm and surgeons sometimes don’t even have time for breakfast.


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