Last week my partner, Steve(*) - on the waiting list for a minor surgical procedure - received an unexpected letter from a nearby private hospital, The Beaumont BMI Hospital in Bolton. It informed him that he had an appointment with them for his surgical procedure at 12pm on 19th June. It reassured him that the treatment would be paid for by the Royal Bolton NHS Foundation Trust Hospital (RBH).
We arrive in time for his appointment. The hospital - an impressive old building - has large grounds and appears well maintained from the outside. We sit down to wait in the small but comfortable waiting room for Steve to be called in for his appointment. And wait. And wait...
While I read all four of the glossy magazines offered to us, Steve reads the only newspaper provided - the Daily Mail - from cover to cover. During this time several more patients turn up. One of them loudly says to the receptionist that she can’t understand why Royal Bolton had sent her there. It transpires that the rapidly growing number of people filling up the small waiting area are all NHS patients. The receptionist is beginning to look flustered.
Forty-five minutes later an orderly approaches the receptionist and reads names from a list, telling her which rooms were being allocated to which patient. Steve is down for Room 11, we overhear him telling her. He disappears. Ten minutes later he returns and speaks to the receptionist again. This time he has Steve down for Room 28. Meanwhile people in the waiting area are getting restless. A bored child runs around - much to the receptionist’s chagrin. The orderly returns looking harassed and informs the receptionist of yet more room changes. This time Steve is allocated Room 31, and finally we are escorted by the orderly up to the treatment floor.
I have a disability; we asked to use the lift. The orderly warned us the lift “plays up sometimes” and needs maintenance that never seemed to happen. Thankfully, it works fine this time. We arrive at Room 31 to find it occupied by another patient. The orderly apologises and said he'd get a nurse to help find a room for us...
Just then, a nurse walks past. The embarrassed orderly asks her where he should put us. Without even a glance at us, she tetchily told him that she has no idea; she hurries off. The poor orderly apologises again and began opening the doors to other rooms until he finds one empty. He goes in search of someone else to check if he can put us in there; eventually it is sorted out.
The orderly - a decent man trying to do his best for us - is visibly fed up. He confides that they were finding it “hard to cope” with the influx of NHS work.
As he explains the facilities in the room,he also says "I shouldn't tell you this but be aware - if you use the phone in here they put a massive charge on it and bill you for it when you leave." The clear implication: his employers were not averse to exploiting their customers.
By now it is 1.15 pm. Last time Steve had this procedure done - at Royal Bolton - it was done within half an hour. He is looking a bit jumpy; he always gets nervous on these occasions and all the waiting is obviously getting to him.
Two nurses come to do the paperwork and record Steve's blood pressure and heart rate. He asks them how long he'll be waiting for the procedure. They can’t tell him because the consultant doing the procedure hasn't arrived at the hospital yet. He is still over at Royal Bolton finishing his list there.
In the end it is 3.30 pm before Steve finally has his procedure. When I return to pick him up, he is eating his lunch - included in the treatment cost - a bog standard ham sandwich with the crusts cut off and with a few salad leaves. I suppose the thing that makes it a private ham sandwich is the posh plate.
Afterwards, the consultant comes to explain his findings and answer any questions. During the conversation, he expresses his concerns about the NHS reforms saying that already doctors are finding the fragmented system is causing huge problems with continuity of care and patient records.
He wants to see Steve again in six weeks to repeat the procedure because of a slight complication, but he tells us he will insist this happens at NHS Royal Bolton, where he is more confident of emergency back up.
It’s clear that private hospitals like the Beaumont are possibly going to see an increase in NHS patients coming through their doors. It was obvious even from this short glimpse that good as these hospitals claim to be, they are not equipped for large numbers of patients. Their high standards have been maintained in the past with comparatively smaller numbers of patients.
Given what I witnessed, the Secretary of State for Health has to admit that the public sector model is not at the heart of the problems in the NHS - the private sector also struggles to cope when a sudden high demand puts a strain on normal staffing levels. This is the kind of nuanced rationale that is currently sorely lacking from the public discourse about the NHS.
And this is me trying to change that.
(*) some minor details have been changed to protect the identity of those involved.