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The need for speed

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Now and again, as must happen to us all, I find myself cast back into the role of patient – always an educational experience (amongst other possible phrases). On this occasion, I decided that I probably had bowel cancer, and was likely going to die. I really felt cross about this prospect, having no time or energy for the necessary associated business of Going Downhill.

I knew that I needed some (more objective) medical input, and phoned my GP surgery, as usual forgetting that I am no longer in New Zealand, and that the next-day appointment with their very own cradle-to-grave GP that Kiwis consider their birth right is a fantasy that I need to let go of. Sure enough, the dreaded phrase ‘that will be a three-week wait’ was trotted out, and I abandoned that avenue forthwith; instead, I made an appointment at my own place of work, the local extended hours surgery.

What a revelation! I was seen within two days (a much more acceptable delay, to my hypochondriacal mind) by, yes, a GP I had never met before; so what? She did the necessary, referred me to hospital, I was seen there two weeks later, I don’t (yet) have bowel cancer, I am happy and (given the generous hourly rate of pay), presumably so is she.

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I will always value speed and efficiency over a cosy doctor-patient relationship

Yes, I know. It would have been lovely if she and I had met many times over the years; if she had delivered my children; visited me at 3am in my fever-bound bed; sectioned me during that difficult period back in ’05 (I made that up! Honest!) and so on. But, hey, it’s 2019. I was fine with her being a complete stranger, because she did the job that I had asked her to – helped me to exclude The Worst – and she did it FAST.

As for the hospital-based part of my experience – to my surprise, I almost enjoyed it. I was seen in a crowded outpatient clinic, this time by someone I DID know (Hereford is a small place); given the somewhat intimate nature of my complaint, was that worse or better than being seen by a stranger? Once again, I say – so what? I was so impressed by the speed and efficiency of the process that I was just delighted to be getting help so soon.

The final stage in my journey of personal lower GI discovery was a sigmoidoscopy – my first encounter with bodily cameras in any shape or form. I must admit to a certain modest pride in the pristine pink landscapes revealed within, as a nurse held my hand and we all admired the pretty pictures on the screen together. Frankly, it was the first time I had had time to lie down all week, and to have my hand held and soothing words murmured to me at intervals enhanced the experience all the more. Maybe this is what a spa break feels like. Minus the phosphate enema.

All in all, I had a positive experience of the NHS, and I would use the extended hours surgery again in a heartbeat. My personality is such that I will always value speed and efficiency over a cosy doctor-patient relationship that has spanned several decades. Of course, when you are terminally ill, or your wife has left you, or your son has discovered heroin, it is a huge comfort to be able to confide in a doctor who is familiar, whom you know and trust. But for many other complaints, the services that are springing up to mop up demand are doing a valuable job, and – in the modern way – I will be ‘feeding back’ accordingly.

Dr Kate Harding is a locum GP and hospice doctor in Herefordshire