This week, the Telegraph reported the tragic death of Jessica Brady, a 27-year old who died of cancer after doctors repeatedly refused to take her symptoms seriously. Over the course of several months, Ms Brady attempted to seek an explanation for her worsening condition no less than 20 times, seldom seeing the same doctor more than once and receiving an in-person consultation just twice. By the time her illness was discovered through a private consultation, it was too late; she died two weeks later.
The abject failures of our health service emerging from the pandemic years are becoming clearer every day, and tragic stories like Ms Brady’s are increasingly and depressingly common. Reports published last year suggested that there were 22,000 fewer people referred for cancer treatment between 2020-21, when hospitals were placed on a coronavirus-footing, and GP surgeries were advised to close their doors to that most disregardable of concerns: the patient.
Anyone unfortunate enough to have suffered even the most minor health complication in recent years will know the ordeal of accessing primary care, and the barriers that seem to be deliberately put in place to stop patients from seeing their doctors. Although this has improved somewhat in the years since the final lockdown, many surgeries continue to subject their patients to absurd and unnecessary care-denying restrictions, which often take the form of belligerent receptionists, long waiting times, or nonsensical ‘virtual’ appointments. And as for seeing the same doctor more than once? Comparisons might be made between a ‘family’ GP and the Asian pangolin: elusive, and nigh on impossible to spot the same one twice.
Express concern at any of these facts, and you will be sharply reminded that ‘abuse’ of the staff is strictly not tolerated – and they have the posters to prove it.
For me it was my right thumb, which suddenly and unexpectedly stopped working one ordinary evening in November 2020. Once I had ruled out a stroke or some terrible degenerative disease, I resolved to get a proper explanation from my doctor, who I reasoned might be interested in identifying the cause. It was therefore much to my irritation that – after several ‘remote’ appointments and the vacuous exchange of photographs of said thumb – I was told this was ‘just one of those things’, and that I, an otherwise healthy 19-year old man, would just have to live with it. Attempts to follow-up yielded no better results.
Fast-forward three years and I am thankfully still here, and although my temperamental thumb is now a source of amusement rather than concern, the experiences of people like Ms Brady and thousands like her is a grossly more serious matter entirely. Indeed, for the families of thousands of people who have died – or will die – as a result of care disruption, this deterioration in the speed of diagnosis and treatment is quite literally a matter of life and death, and one of the greatest policy failures in recent memory.
Government forecasts at the start of the lockdown experiment in April 2020 projected that broader excess deaths from ‘changes to healthcare activity’ could be as high as 185,000 in the medium-term, as patients lost access to ordinary diagnostics and treatment. As anticipated, the scale of this crisis is now observable across every branch of medical care, from emergency to dental; data published by the Office for National Statistics demonstrates a startling and ongoing surge in patients seeking treatment for long-term untreated illness, with emergency admissions for heart problems alone rising to almost 26,000 in 2021.
This backlog has had a particular impact on the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, an area where the NHS already lags behind. Research conducted by the University of Oxford and published in 2021 suggested that assessment referrals for patients with suspected bowel cancer fell by almost 65% in 2020 in comparison to 2019, whilst the number of bowel cancer patients being sent for treatment also fell by over 20%. Further studies published in the Lancet as early as July 2020 predicted a 7.9-9.6% increase in breast cancer deaths over the ensuing five years as a result of the suspension of routine primary care and early detection; this is probably an underestimation.
Individually, each of these statistics translates to living, breathing people, whose lives will be cut short as a result of botched care: unavailable appointments, late referrals, or long waiting times.
And this is not just a ‘crisis’, a term that implies that this whole state of emergency might be short-lived. The problems blighting the National Health Service are deeply structural, and although they have been undoubtedly exacerbated by the impact of lockdown, a few years of normalcy alone will be an insufficient remedy.
Those who call for more meaningful health reform are usually shouted-down in the current political climate, and it is tantamount to secular blasphemy to criticise that sacred cow, the NHS.
But the data does not lie. It is a tragic disservice to patients and doctors alike that things have been allowed to get as they are, and until a politician is willing to take this cow by its horns, the sad reality is that healthcare will continue to deteriorate, treatments will continue being delayed, and people will continue to die.
Earlier this term, the Cherwell reported that New College would stop using scouts to clean students’ rooms, despite overwhelming opposition from undergraduate members. Last week, Univ faced a student revolt over plans by its governing body to remove night porters, leaving the college’s lodge unattended between the hours of 11pm and 7am.
Meanwhile, the cost of battels continues to increase to some of their most expensive ever, with college rent for undergraduates rising upwards of 9% on average this academic year.
As students, it is now entirely clear that we are paying far more for increasingly less – handing-over ludicrous sums only to lose access to services that have been in place for hundreds of years.
Among other things, this is very short-sighted. I’d politely urge fellows to remember that the good will of their alumni is vital to the financial health of their college, and that by extracting too much money from their students now, they are less likely to be the recipients of their generosity in the future.