I don’t know about you, but I’m swatting up on public health and maternity care – it might seem an odd combination, but it looks like we’re going to need it. The Department of Health – renowned for its undying faith in the virtues of general practice – has decreed that only primary care will remain free at the point of delivery for non-EU migrants, while A&E and secondary care will be withdrawn behind a solid paywall. This is seen by some as a U-turn, bowing to concerns that charging for all medical care could lead to serious threats to public health, such as outbreaks of TB – as has already happened in Spain.
The Department of Health has reassured the public by stating that, in keeping GP consultations free, everyone will have ‘initial access to prevent risks to public health such as HIV, TB and sexually transmitted infection.’ That’s all right then. There’s no statement, of course, about what is meant to happen after this initial access. When I’ve made my initial assessment that the impoverished patient sitting before me could well have TB, can I order a chest x-ray before I obtain their credit card details? And when the report of a cavitating apical lesion arrives on the fax machine, should I brush up on treatment regimes for mycobacterial disease when my patient informs me that he can’t afford hospital care? Perhaps I should learn bronchoscopy and start offering it as a minor op? Oh, but they plan to charge for that too, don’t they? Oh well, it’s not like TB is making a bit of a come-back or anything.
Then there’s maternity. Apparently no-one will be turned away, but they will be charged. How does that work then for a pregnant woman with no money? Cross your legs until you’ve saved enough? Visit Wonga and ask for a labour day loan? Or try a home birth with a cost-free GP and hope you find one that’s been around long enough to remember how to do it? Even if the moral argument doesn’t grab you, it makes poor economic sense – obstetric catastrophes are very expensive as well as tragic.
The thinking behind this, of course, is that the NHS is broken (it isn’t), and so called ‘health tourists’ are the cause (they aren’t). The real reason, however, is more ideological. Read the DH document in detail and you find a recurring argument that goes something like this:
We’ve considered Situation X; we recognise there are moral and ethical difficulties, but we are going to charge anyway because the Hard-Working-British-Tax-Payer can’t put up with the idea that someone, somewhere might be getting a free ride.
The document makes a clear distinction between medical tourists (those who choose to travel for better health care, but are willing and able to pay for it) and health tourists (those who have health needs but cannot afford to pay for it). They want to encourage the former (the rich), while denying healthcare to the latter (the poor) – how very like this Government.
Now I’m not that keen on people being able to take cynical advantage of the NHS, but neither do I wish to see the most vulnerable in our society shut out of receiving healthcare; the new rules will apply to asylum-seekers – many of whom have genuinely fled from horror to the safety of our more tolerant society – and even people who have become victims of human trafficking may have to pay; the Government is still consulting about this, and is clearly stuck with how to identify the ‘worthy’ immigrant from the ‘unworthy’ one.
It will not be long before doctors will have to decide which is the higher calling on their professional duty. When faced with a sick patient – not quite an emergency, but not something to ignore – will it be Government policy that will prevail? Or the urgings of a hospital manager desperate to balance the books? Or should we insist that, whatever the political will we are up against, our duties are laid out by the foundations of our profession as laid down in the World Medical Profession declaration of Geneva:
I WILL NOT PERMIT considerations of age, disease or disability, creed, ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political affiliation, race, sexual orientation, social standing or any other factor to intervene between my duty and my patient.
Or our own GMC:
MAKE THE CARE OF YOUR PATIENT YOUR FIRST CONCERN; Protect and promote the health of patients and the public; Respect patients’ right to confidentiality; Never discriminate unfairly against patients or colleagues.
Or the United Nations Human Rights Treaty:
States are under the obligation to respect the right to health by, inter alia, refraining from denying or limiting equal access for all persons, including prisoners or detainees, minorities, asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, to preventive, curative and palliative health services; abstaining from enforcing discriminatory practices as a State policy.
When these charges start to bite doctors will be faced with dilemmas on a daily basis. Do we do as we are told, and turn away patients whom we know we can help on the basis of their nationality, or do we consider something more radical? When Iona Heath reflected on the above statements recently on Twitter she had no doubt which was the right way for the profession to act, and recommended civil disobedience. Are we brave enough to follow her lead?
Dr Martin Brunet is a GP in Guildford and programme director of the Guildford GPVTS. You can tweet him @DocMartin68