I can hardly believe it’s happened. Yesterday, for the first time in 40 years, doctors went on strike. I went out to the picket line at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospital today to speak to and support the doctors out there. It was incredible how dignified this whole campaign has been. They know they have the moral high ground, because ultimately what they’re fighting for is the future of the NHS.
I have to say, it’s really weird not being one of them anymore. Weakening my bond to Medicine under normal circumstances would be difficult, but with all this unprecedented action going on, I feel like I’ve abandoned my colleagues and my profession when they most need support.
However, it is liberating not to be threatened with legal action and GMC hearings, as unfortunately some doctors have been lately. I feel I can truly speak my mind without having to worry about my career.
With this in mind, I said yes when my friend and mentor Gyles Morrison asked me if I’d spend the strike day with ‘Dr Morton’s’, a private healthcare company that provides advice and treatment over the phone or email. I know there’s a lot of controversy, even within the medical profession, as to how much private and public healthcare should be mixed, and with certain branches of the media so desperately keen for sensations at the moment, a training doctor couldn’t really be seen as being connected with a private company. Even though I’ve left, I have to confess feeling some trepidation as I made my way over to their office in Waterloo today. I could almost see the papers now… ‘Doctor spends strike day at private healthcare company.’ Well, at least she writes her own derogatory headlines.
One of the things Dr Morton’s were doing today was taking calls for free in support of the strike. I spoke with John Wilkes, co-founder of the company. He told me that, while working in the city, he found it difficult to get GP appointments without taking time off work. Lining patients up in a waiting room is convenient for GPs and saves money for the NHS, but paradoxically, it costs the economy money. Especially when you consider the report by the NHS Alliance and the Primary Care Foundation last October, which estimated that a quarter of GP appointments are unnecessary.
While I agree with reducing time-wasters for GPs, I know there are many who would say this kind of private initiative undermines the NHS. It’s a tricky one. When I met the founders of Doctify last year, Dr Stephanie Eltz explained how the idea for the online specialist database came from her own personal struggle to find someone who could treat her. She explained:
If you try to innovate within the NHS, you’ll be waiting forever. There simply aren’t enough resources. If you want to develop something new for the NHS, you have to do it outside of the system, and then take it back to the NHS once it becomes successful.
The Dr Morton’s team that if this model takes off, as I’m sure it will, because there will be a huge demand for it, it would be great if the NHS could adopt it. In the meantime, they attempt to ‘take the stress out of the NHS’ by providing care for those who can afford it, while leaving the free service to those who can’t.
It’s difficult as a doctor to think commercially sometimes. We automatically reject any talk of monetary value, because our priority is our patients of course, and the thought of having to decide how money is spent on them is honestly a bit repulsive. When you choose to be a doctor, the financial side of things just doesn’t come into it.
Instead we let non-medics dominate the world of clinical commissioning and health policy. I met Dr Harpreet Sood, a Senior Fellow for NHS England, and he completely shocked me when he told me that when he arrived, there wasn’t a single clinician at the top level of NHS England. Until it became desperate, everyone accepted this situation. Now, however, we’re left wondering where the hell the £130 million NHS budget goes, and why NHS services are being out-sourced to private companies. The few medics that do exist in that ‘world’ have often turned out to be the rotten eggs – money-grabbing sell-outs who crossed over to the ‘dark side.’
Could the solution be these innovative start-ups, hatched and grown in the private sector until they’re ready to tackle the NHS? I don’t really know. I’m not in a position to say that.
All I can say is this: the other Co-founder of Dr Morton’s, Dr Karen Morton, is an Obs and Gynae consultant, and works on the business alongside her NHS work. If the NHS does need to collaborate with the private sector to survive, I’d much rather those decisions be taken by a caring doctor on the front line like her, than those who are driven by financial gain alone, and those who – in the words of Dr Sood – have never set foot in a hospital.