As a GP, having my heart surgery cancelled gave me a new perspective on NHS underfunding

Dave Triffit, who has worked in the NHS for decades, recently had his operation postponed at the last minute, one of many cancelled to stave off a winter crisis

I am a GP partner in Oxford. I have worked in the NHS in Oxford for 20 years, barring two years in a post in rural Canada. In July 2017, we returned to the UK and a friend of mine, who’s a cardiothoracic anaesthetist, commented on my bounding neck pulses as we were chatting over a beer. A little later that day, I had a listen to my heart and even I, a GP, could hear a loud murmur. I asked one of my colleagues to have a listen, just to check I wasn’t being paranoid. I think he was trying to make me feel better and reassured me: “It’s probably just a flow murmur.”

Nevertheless, I saw my GP that day. With detached, mildly mounting alarm I registered the abnormal findings she discovered. High blood pressure, wide pulse pressure, mild tachycardia and, of course, The Murmur. Her worried expression made me more alarmed than the findings, and I found myself trying to reassure her that everything would be OK.

I saw the cardiologist in October and as soon as he mentioned he wanted to get the medical student, I knew I was in for some bad news. He told me I had severe aortic regurgitation, where blood flows in the reverse direction from where it’s supposed to as the heart pumps. He said he’d see me in six months and by that time I would have a new aortic valve. My reaction was silence, followed by expletive-laden surprise, not least as I had had no symptoms at all. Also, doctors never get sick.

It’s funny how that kind of news affects you – for a week or so, I was mentally crossing things off the list of things I could do with the rest of my life, and confronting the possibility that I might not see my daughter grow up.

In December, I was very relieved to get a date for my operation in January 2018 but my urgent surgery was cancelled when I called in at 10am on the day of admission. It’s difficult to describe the sense of loss that I felt. It came as a surprise, even for someone who works in the NHS every day. I really did not know what to do with myself. As doctors in the NHS, we are trained from an early stage to soak up punishment, not to complain and to always carry on. But with my patient’s brain, I idly wondered how other people might be coping with similarly disorientating news all over the UK. About how they might be thinking how unfair this was, and what would they do now. Lives put on hold, terrible feelings of uncertainty, resignation and finally acceptance. After such news they must love, fear and hate the health service all at the same time. Nevertheless, the NHS is so beloved that it would never cross their minds that the government would have deliberately underfunded it for the last seven years. Some people might think it’s pretty decent of ministers to apologise for all the disruption, and that the government, to its credit, is forward-planning for a winter crisis.

The fact is, of course, that it is not, and that the crisis was entirely avoidable and is down to consistent underfunding. Doctors and the Kings Fund predicted it, even the head of NHS England predicted it. It’s quite difficult to describe the strangled sense of anger as I watched Jeremy Hunt on the news that night. I’m not sure how much more short-notice my surgery cancellation could have been, and yet here was my ultimate boss telling me that this was being done to avoid just such upheaval.

A combination of factors are at play. Hospitals have fewer beds than last year, so they are less able to deal with the recent, ongoing surge in illness. Last week, for example, the bed occupancy rate at 17 of England’s 153 acute hospital trusts was 98% or more, with the fullest – Walsall healthcare trust – 99.9% occupied.

NHS England admits that the service “has been under sustained pressure [recently because of] high levels of respiratory illness, bed occupancy levels giving limited capacity to deal with demand surges, early indications of increasing flu prevalence and some reports suggesting a rise in the severity of illness among patients arriving at A&Es”.

Many NHS bosses and senior doctors say that the pressure the NHS is under now is the heaviest it has ever been. “We are seeing conditions that people have not experienced in their working lives,” says Dr Taj Hassan, the president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine.

The unprecedented nature of the measures that NHS bosses have told hospitals to take – including cancelling tens of thousands of operations and outpatient appointments until at least the end of January – underlines the seriousness of the situation facing NHS services, including ambulance crews and GP surgeries.

Read a full Q&A on the NHS winter crisis

I was back to work the next day and I have my game face firmly back on, but I can’t deny it has been disruptive and upsetting. I’m determined not to let any of these developments compromise my patient care and commitment to the NHS. I am sanguine, but waiting hopefully for another appointment. I understand that this situation may well occur again. In that circumstance, I look forward to a time when the apology from my health secretary and prime minister will be replaced by sustained hard investment in the NHS. Platitudes and short-term measures will not save or improve it. And yet, as many commentators have already suggested, perhaps that is this government’s point.

Dave Triffit

The GuardianTramp

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