Jayne Dowle: Body of evidence shows we’ve been patient too long

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I’M pleased that medical receptionists in Bradford are to be trained how to treat patients with respect. It’s about time. And not just in Bradford. I have lost count of the instances I’ve witnessed rude, unfeeling and downright obstructive behaviour from such vital front-line staff. Of course, it’s questionable whether this is a good use of NHS money – surely those recruited to such a public-facing role should already possess these skills – but at least managers have realised there is a problem.

In the meantime though, do you think the NHS will fund anger management training for the rest of us? There are few things more likely to get my back up than trying to get through to my local GP’s surgery.

We’re a generally healthy family, so luckily we don’t have to trouble them too much. Perhaps that’s why I am always shocked when I do have cause to call. I can never get my head around the fact that those who are expected to help us can be so damned rude.

It would be nice if they could answer the phone, for a start. And it would also be nice if they could show just a little bit of sympathy. I know there are only so many appointments to go round, but I swear I denote a hint of superiority when certain individuals inform you that there is no way you can see a doctor until a week next Tuesday.

While they are about it, I suggest that the NHS looks also at the “customer care” approach in other areas too. I realise it must be extremely frustrating attempting to run a specialist hospital department, but I do wish that staff would have more understanding of other people’s busy lives and commitments.

When an appointment at a clinic says “11.30am”, is it too much to expect it to take place somewhere in the vicinity of that time? And is it too much to offer a polite and informed explanation when a patient (or a patient’s companion) enquires how much longer they might be expected to sit there waiting?

I could go on, but it doesn’t make any difference as I have found out to my cost.

That is why I am pleased to see this new report from the Reform think-tank. It suggests that patients would benefit from getting more involved in their own healthcare.

This would mean access to our medical records online, for example. It would allow us the opportunity to email our GPs and specialists, and join online communities with people who have similar health issues to ourselves in order to share experiences.

It would see a wider roll-out of “incentive schemes” which prioritise care for patients who are prepared to lose weight, stop smoking and buy healthy food. It also suggests that patients with long-term chronic conditions, such as diabetes, monitor their own condition.

I already see this in action in my own family. My dad – no fan of technology, or gymnastic exercise, it must be said – has serious heart problems. Every morning he clocks in with his “health buddy”, a machine that measures his blood pressure and weight, and twice a week he takes part in rehabilitation treatment at a local gym.

In return, he receives sterling service from his dedicated local GP. He never imagined he would be part of a health-care revolution, but he is. And, although he resents the restrictions his condition brings, it helps him to come to terms with the debilitating effect it is having on his life.

What we are seeing here is not just a list of sensible suggestions. It is a fundamental shift in the relationship between the NHS and the public.

It is difficult for most of us to comprehend just how much the NHS is changing – and indeed, must change – if it is to continue to provide us with the free medical care we have come to expect. This level of involvement from us, the public, suggests a serious shift in balance. No longer are we the patient patients, waiting for the doctors and nurses to fix us. We must become active participants in 
our own health. And really, we must accept that this is a good thing.

For too long now, we have clung onto the ideal of the NHS as created in the 1940s, when the world was a very different place. Only now, though, are we beginning to accept that we can’t carry on with doses of cod liver oil and serried ranks of beds overseen by a matron in a starched cap. It’s certainly taken some years to sink in. After all, it’s more than a decade since the landmark review of the NHS, led by Sir Derek Wanless, suggested that greater engagement would contribute to better outcomes for patients, and lower costs.

Let’s not miss this opportunity then. We should all learn to take a little more responsibility for ourselves. And, most importantly, it is estimated that getting patients more involved with their treatment could actually save the health service £2bn over the next five years. Now, just think of all the customer care training courses that could fund.

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