Saturday, July 04, 2009

Get to the back of the NHS queue

A letter arrives from the doctors. Your optician has referred you to an NHS consultant to get your eyes checked out, pronto. Do not pass go, do not collect £200.

Ah, the delights of growing middle-aged. Rationally, after nearly five decades on this planet one has to expect some wear and tear on tendons, nerves and other working parts. When it hits home, though, you can be as rational as you like but there's still an element of worry.

At times like this, recourse to the internet is probably not the best idea.

Because as soon as you start Googling your symptoms (headache, yellow tongue, shaky hands, blurred vision, general disinclination to get out of bed – can you tell what it is yet?) you start to believe the worst. Plague, dengue fever and beriberi, all rolled into one, is what you've got. And the only consolation about this eye business, you tell yourself, is that at least they've caught it early.

The worst thing of all about the whole situation, though, is the Kafka-esque NHS bureaucracy that you have to go through to get a hospital appointment. Attached to the doctor's letter is a "Choose and Book" form to guide you through the process.

Section 1 is Your Details: name, number and surgery. So far, so good. Section 2 tells you go to Section 3 to choose your hospital. Well, the Royal United United Hospital, Bath, is just round the corner and the other option is in deepest Bristol, so RUH it is. Back to section 2. And would you like to book by: (a) phone; (b) textphone or (c) internet? It might be fun to choose options b or c, if only to find out what a textphone is. But there's a whopping great sticker over all the details telling you that there is in fact only one option: ring the NHS number in Bridgwater.

Easily done, and you're soon listening to a recorded message telling you that not only can they sort out your appointment for you but if you ask nicely they can offer you help to give up smoking.

After a not-too-prolonged wait, a real genuine person comes on the line and checks your details. Name, address, telephone number, date of birth, shoe size: the usual stuff. And are you a smoker at all? This is damn intrusive. No, not at all, and if you want a top tip for giving up, try nicotine patches, Werther's Originals and raw carrots to keep your fingers busy. It worked perfectly well 13 years ago and there's no reason why it shouldn't still work now. And what's it got to do with lining up an NHS ophthalmologist to have a poke around inside your eyeballs, anyway?

Final question from real live person (who is not to be blamed for the above, she's only following a script): where would you like to go for your appointment? The RUH, please.

Ah well, in that case, you have to ring them on a Bath number. And you can't book online.

Now hang on. We've just spent the last ten minutes going over all these details with someone who doesn't actually need them, and all we've got is another phone number? Right.

There's nothing for it. Ring the Bath number, and be entertained by early Beatles hits while you float slowly to the top of the queue. Eventually the music stops, and you hear the rattling of keyboards, quiet coughs, general office noise. After 20 seconds, the line goes dead. Ring again, back to the bottom of the queue, more 60s chart-toppers to remind you how old you are, more bureaucracy at the end of the line. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

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