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I didn’t need an eye injury to see the NHS is broken

A recent trip to A&E gave further proof, if any were needed, that our NHS is at breaking point, says Malcolm Brown

My wife (another retired pharmacist) examined my eyes with a torch at 8pm.

"You need to go to A&E, now," she said fiercely. At 5am, while relaying the fire, smouldering wood ash had puffed into my eyes.

She drove me, kicking and screaming, the nine miles to our nearest casualty department. Phoning for an ambulance was futile.

In the waiting room, a monitor informed that 79 patients were in the queue.

I asked the reception staff how long I would have to wait to be seen.

"About four hours," they replied.

Read more: Health inequalities: Time to see beyond words, accent or history, RPS says

I received triage after just ten minutes. The nurse reported – correctly – that I was not an urgent case, but was coy about how long I might have to wait.

Waiting was colourful.

Many patients had been waiting for a bed since 9am. The number of police present surprised me; one detainee urged self-discharge. One patient slowly slid onto the floor to lie flat, moaning in agony. She disappeared but returned to lie on the floor twice more.

"This is a nightmare,” a disturbed young man shouted over the background chattering.

The room hushed for a couple of seconds. He had vocalised what everyone thought.

Read more: NHS workforce plan must include community pharmacy, sector urges

At midnight, I said to my wife, "Happy Anniversary". It was a big one with a fancy, glittering name: Emerald. She smiled back. At least, I imagined that she did; I could not see her very well.

More importantly, I heard from at least four pairs of lips, "It's broken". They had all been referring to the NHS.

My turn to be seen finally came after six hours. At that point, 84 patients were still waiting, and 11 front-line ambulances were parked outside, headlights on, and engines purring. Presumably, they were unable to discharge their patients.

The ophthalmic examining room was hygienic and well-equipped. Staff were courteous and highly professional – indeed, superb; and they had all the drugs they needed to hand. It occurred to me that all the expensive technology and medical expertise would be nothing without those actual medicines being available.

Read more: PSNC CEO: Government must stop recruiting ‘clinical’ pharmacists into PCNs

That is pharmacists' trump hand as the experts in medicine. Pharmacists sometimes forget that in their enthusiasm for giving advice, prescribing, injecting and so on.

When returning from the clinical area into the waiting room I had a sense of déjà vu; I had been that way many times previously, back when I worked at the hospital.

Back then, I had believed in the NHS.  It had moulded me. I had done my best, in my small way, to contribute to making it work. To re-experience it, as a patient in its present state, broke my heart.

The fluorescein eye drops I’d been given may not have caused all of the red tear stains on my cheeks and mask.

Yes, the NHS is broken. Funding is one factor. Effectiveness might be increased by more joined-up care. For example, the dispensing doctor gave me a tube of antibiotic ointment.

But I knew it would be insufficient for a week. So, the next day I bothered the busy local GP for extra supplies and an equally busy community pharmacist dispensed what I needed. I also bought a tube. Had I been given enough, that could have been avoided.

But it is complicated and interests jostle. For example, community pharmacies need all the crumbs in their slice of the cake to survive financially. But there has been a continuous and continual clamour from every part of the NHS for more money since it was founded in 1948. I understand why politicians seem deaf.

Read more: MPs push government for funded pharmacy workforce plan

But when I can get a watch delivered by Amazon within about a day, yet an ambulance struggles to take a day to collect a poorly patient, something, somewhere, is amiss. If not broken.

Malcolm Brown is a retired pharmacist

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