“BE AWARE of your options,” we were told by NHS bosses last week.
The catalyst for this piece of friendly advice was the near-overwhelming of Great Western Hospital’s Accident And Emergency department. There was an unexplained spike in patient numbers.
The people in charge took this as a cue to remind us that there are alternatives to heading for A&E when we’re hurt, feeling poorly or worried about the condition of a loved one.
That would be all very well, were it not for the fact that most of us are completely familiar with the alternatives already.
For example, we know that one of them is to make an appointment with our GP.
Or maybe not.
Maybe our GP has quit on account of yet another round of funding restrictions and “best practice” lunacy.
Maybe they received a directive from some Government official saying they were only allowed to prescribe penicillin while standing on one leg in a bucket of custard while singing the Hippocratic Oath backwards to the tune of Macarena.
Maybe they thought: “To hell with this – I’m taking up a less frustrating job, such as training wasps to fly in formation.” With a bit of luck, though, our GP will still be there and at a fairly stable point between bouts of nervous collapse.
If our luck holds, we might get an appointment only a few days or so in the future, which is great if we’re just feeling a bit peaky, but less so if we’re suffering from something potentially lethal.
Another alternative to A&E is visiting an NHS walk-in centre.
If we choose this option, then we don’t have to wait for an indeterminate period in an A&E department to see a harried doctor or nurse who might not have had a day off in a week or more. Instead, we get to wait for an indeterminate period in a walk-in centre to see a harried doctor or nurse who might not have had a day off in a week or more.
Then, if whatever ails us turns out to be minor, we’ll probably be told to call our GP. If it’s more serious, we’ll probably be sent to wait for an indeterminate period in an A&E department to see a harried doctor or nurse who might not have had a day off in a week or more. Of course, if what we have is potentially deadly, we’ll be bumped up the queue. Mind you, we’ll have to hope that the wait in the walk-in centre wasn’t enough to mean the difference between life and death.
The third alternative to A&E is phoning the NHS advice line. Once we’ve got through the battery of questions designed not to help us but to make it more difficult for us to sue if we’re given duff information (“Is the patient breathing?” “Are any of their insides on the outside?” “Is their head attached to their body?”) we can ask for assistance.
We should bear in mind, obviously, that the person on the other end of the line is probably no more medically qualified than we are.
That’s why some of them are so prone to cancelling ambulances, dismissing parents’ concerns about seriously ill infants and popping up as shifty, buck-passing witnesses at inquests.
It’s worth remembering that there is a really fool-proof alternative to having A&E departments and their hard-working staff overwhelmed.
Ensuring those departments are big enough to cope with demand in the first place – or expanding them as needed – works every time.