In my experience, visitors to GP surgeries fall in one of two patient camps. The first bunch, a small minority, are those who are often cited in articles about NHS lack of funding. They’re the ones who run to their GP with their cold, their cut finger, or occasional tummy ache, taking much more of NHS times and resources than they actually need. (I actually think these are such a small minority of the population that they’re almost mythical – GPs please feel free to disagree.) The rest of us sit doggedly in what I would call the ‘Oh it’s probably nothing’ camp, otherwise known as the ‘I’m sure it will go away ‘camp, the ‘I don’t want to bother the doctor with it’ camp or the ‘I meant to get round to making an appointment but I just haven’t had time’ camp.
If we add a few more of us saying ‘I don’t want to pay a tenner to be told there’s nothing wrong with me’, then many of us will never quite get into our GP waiting room at all. And yet that is an idea which is currently doing the NHS rounds. First proposed (and rejected) at the British Medical Association conference last month, it’s being raised this week at the Royal College of Nurses conference. No doubt it’ll be soundly rejected again, as nurses staunchly uphold the principle of free NHS treatment. The arguments against it will cite discrimination against the poor, crowded Accident and Emergency departments, more red tape – all probably good reasons to reject the idea.
But there’s another basic flaw. Just like Michael Gove’s policy on family holidays in term time, this idea will not target those it’s aimed at. The patients with a mild cold will think it’s well worth a tenner and pay to see a GP in the same way that the truants still miss school. But it will give those who probably really do need to see their doctor, another reason not to go. Even for those of those think nothing of spending 4 quid on a latte, ten pounds is a lot of money which frankly we think we could use for other things, whether that’s a good decision or not.
Sit in any GP waiting room nowadays and you will find yourself surrounded by posters encouraging you to spend more time at the doctors not less. Feel bloated? It could be ovarian cancer – get it checked out. Feeling thirsty all the time? It could be diabetes – go see your GP. The fact that the NHS and various charities spend so much money on these campaigns suggests to me that far from us being a country full of whinging hypochondriacs who bother their GP with the slightest ailments, we’re actually much more likely to ignore potentially dangerous symptoms.
In November last year, I had what I thought was a bad cold, got very breathless, realised I was quite poorly but never quite got round to getting a GP appointment. I was up to my ears in work, Christmas shopping, school concerts and just didn’t fit it in. I coughed through the festive season, but then on 4th January was blue-lighted into hospital after collapsing with double pneumonia. That’s my own stupid fault. Of course I probably would have ended up in hospital anyway, but the experience did make me realise that I am one of those who will only get round to making an appointment when I really, really need one. And I probably should make them more often, not less. Charging me a tenner for the privilege won’t encourage me to do that, though it might make me sit there for longer with my GP and make sure I get my money’s worth. For those who are really counting their pennies though and face a choice of going to the GP or paying for the school trip, this isn’t just a daft idea but a dangerous one. Let’s stop talking about it.