A Day on a Hospital Trolley

Even though he’s a fictional character, GP Geoff is not so very different from most other medics. If he needs to see a doctor, all he does is look in the mirror.

hospital entrance

But the swelling and dragging sensation in his left groin have become hard to ignore, and today he’s going into the Day Surgery Unit of his local hospital. Hernia repair used to mean a sizeable incision and several days in hospital, but, with keyhole surgery, Geoff will be home the same day.

About 90% of operations are now done as day case surgery. Beds are as rare as unicorns, thinks Geoff as he meets Cecil, the day care nurse who’s looking after him today.

Today Geoff doesn’t get a bed, just a trolley on a six-bedded ward. If a patient turns out not to be fit to go home the same day after all, then he gets to stay overnight. On that same trolley.

Geoff has been qualified just 15 years and already things have changed beyond measure. Or have they always been like this for patients?

surgical dressings

A junior surgeon pops round with a consent form, then the anaesthetist visits. Geoff is distracted by her dazzling smile, her shock of red curls, but mostly by her multiple nasal piercings. What happens when she has a cold?

“With modern anaesthetic drugs,” she tells him, “you wake up so clear-headed that you can do The Times crossword.”

Which is wonderful because Geoff’s never been able to do The Times crossword.

He won’t get a pre-med, which is a shame. It used to be the best thing about having surgery, but there’s no scope for such things on the day surgery conveyor belt. Besides, Geoff needs to be in charge of his feet, because, when he’s changed into a flimsy gown and paper underpants, a nurse takes him for a long trek to the operating theatre. He hopes he doesn’t run into any of his patients.

Geoff meets the consultant surgeon for the first time in the anaesthetic room. He’s more Doogie Howser than Dr Finlay. Geoff resists asking if his mother knows where he is.

scalpel

When it’s all over, he can hardly feel he’s had anything done, but he’s lying in a large well-lit room where a nurse is telling him to drink. He had not realised he was clutching a small Styrofoam cup.

Back on the Day Surgery Unit, Nurse Cecil checks his pulse, blood pressure, and oxygen saturations every half hour, and reminds him to eat and drink. There’s an obligatory six hours before he can go home. There’s also the requirement to consume the tea and roast beef sandwich placed next to him.

The man on the neighbouring trolley is smiling at a film on his iPhone. Geoff can’t see the man opposite, as his girlfriend is busy delivering a prolonged post-op snog.

Geoff decides against powering up his phone. The pre-op instructions were clear: do not do anything important in the next 24 hours. The last thing he needs is a spirited twitter exchange with one of those anti-vaccine types.

Geoff doesn’t have a newspaper so he can’t test the anaesthetist’s promise. He brought the latest British Medical Journal, but he doesn’t much feel like it now. Or the sandwich. 

British Medical Journal

The patient by the window has already regained his appetite, judging by the takeaway his family brought in. The red and white packaging is already open, filling the ward with the heady aroma of grease, along with 17 different herbs and spices.

Eventually Geoff does what’s required of him: drink, eat, and pass urine. Post-op pain is breaking through by the time he gets to the tiny WC, where someone has already hosed down the floor.

In the corridor, one of the female patients is asking Cecil where she can find a nurse, oblivious of the fact that she is speaking to a nurse. “I’m a nurse,” says the nurse. The patient’s face is blank.

Finally Geoff goes home with a paper bag. It has spare dressings, a packet of painkillers, and instruction leaflets on not picking your scabs.

There’s supposed to be a responsible adult with him for the first 24 hours at home. Geoff, who’s single, fibbed about that bit. Luckily nobody checks, and he absconds in an Uber.

Nothing will go wrong, Geoff tells himself. Aside from the little lie he told the hospital, he plans to be a good patient and take careful note of all the instructions. At first, he is a little confused by the stated telephone times.

Then he realises it’s exactly like Sainsbury’s, trolleys and all.

 

Geoff lives in North London where he looks after patients, longs for a meaningful relationship, and rants about the NHS. You can find out more about him and his life in the pages of Hampstead Fever.

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Warning: A Doctor Rants

Vaccines had a bad press a few years ago, but things have changed, or so I thought. That’s why I was surprised when this week a university student refused the freshers’ dose of meningitis C vaccineFreeImages.com/Antonio Jiménez AlonsoI was even more surprised when he told me that his father, a doctor in another European country, was against vaccination.

What would you have done?  

University students are at higher risk of meningitis. One in four 15-19 year olds carries meningococcal bacteria in the back of the throat, as opposed to one in 10 of the general UK population. And, if you haven’t been a fresher for a while, imagine all that mingling with hundreds of other young people, often in crowded conditions.  

There’s lots of useful info on meningitis, and on vaccines.  Alas, I only know sites for fluent English speakers, and the lad in front of me wasn’t one of them.

I jokingly told him I wanted words with his dad. But in reality that was never going to happen. In general practice there’s barely time for a long discussion with a patient, let alone with family. Photo by Jean Scheijen FreeImages.com/Jean ScheijenConsultation rates with GPs have gone up in the last 20 years to around eight consultations per person a year. Along with that, patient expectations have risen. No bad thing in itself, but it requires more time.

Many areas are bulging with an influx of new patients. London has a particularly mobile population but it’s not the only place where there are migrants, refugees, or simply new housing. Some arrivals speak little English, so interpreters are needed, and the consultation takes twice as long as a result.

The pattern of work has shifted. As hospitals shed more care onto general practice, and send patients home sooner, GPs inevitably must do more. Around 90% of medical care now takes place in surgeries, by GPs, nurses and other members of the health team.

National Health Service logo

The structure of health care has changed with the advent of clinical commissioning groups (CCGs). In my view, that work takes a lot of good GPs away from face-to-face patient care.

Professional development makes demands too. I have to keep up to date, and these days I also have to prove it via appraisal and revalidation. People believed something had to be done post-Shipman, so now we spend time counting lots of things that don’t count. I hope that changes, but meanwhile preparing for annual appraisal takes two hours a week.

Providing good medical care is now a real struggle. GPs are retiring, and a sizeable chunk of medics are leaving the country.

Australian and UK towels on the beach

There’s nobody to replace them.

Like many GPs, I teach medical students. That time too must come out of a busy week. But here’s what really worries me about teaching.  

In the last 10 years I’ve noticed that fewer students now want to be GPs. Yet not so long ago new doctors were falling over each other to join practices.

It’s no wonder that doctors in the UK are angry and fed up. New changes imposed by government are likely to make things worse. In many areas, NHS general practice can barely provide a decent service five days a week. How can it stretch to seven days?

I’m not against change. General practice changes all the time. That’s part of its attraction as a speciality. But the developments I’ve lived through now make it almost impossible to do the job properly.

doctor's bag

You may like to read: 

Numbers of NHS doctors registering to work overseas could reach unprecedented record in the Independent, September 21, 2015

A fictional GP reflects on What They Don’t Teach at Medical School

I muse on What Happens when You Become a Doctor.

Easy tweet: What’s wrong with general practice? http://wp.me/p3uiuG-15w A #doctor rants #NHS via @DrCarolCooper

What Happens When You Become a Doctor

Any day now and it’ll be the Killing Season, so-called. August 1 is the date when a fresh crop of newbie doctors arrives on hospital wards, bursting with enthusiasm and theoretical knowledge but woefully lacking in experience.

Jeremy's scalpel

In fact August is no longer worthy of that macabre tag. The month now begins with a sensible induction process for newly qualified doctors, with proper training in the tasks and procedures they’ll need to do in the coming months. Gone are the days of ‘See one, do one, teach one.’ The Killing Season is well and truly dead. Induction is a recent trend. I will never forget the utter panic on my first day as a doctor as I crept around in squeaky new shoes trying not to look like the rawest recruit. It was a Sunday—was there ever a more stupid day to start work?—and a patient had the misfortune of dying within 45 minutes of my arrival at the hospital. Now don’t jump to conclusions. I hadn’t even seen her before she died.

HP Rapaport Sprague stethoscope, circa 1981

HP Rapaport Sprague stethoscope, circa 1981

Wet behind the ears, I had no idea of the procedure to follow. Even scarier was the realization that I had two whole wards full of people to keep alive as long as possible. I rushed round to say hello to them all and check they were still breathing. At the same time, I said goodbye to many things: sleep, leisurely weekends, sitting on the loo without being bleeped. In short, to normal life. iv nutrition

While a lot has changed since then, including working hours, some things haven’t, as I realized from a recent blog post by Salma Aslam (by which I mean Dr Salma Aslam) Transitional state: med student to doctor It all came back to me. When you graduate from medical school, you may get a number of different reactions. 1 “Well done, but don’t go round thinking you know it all.” Don’t worry, I didn’t. And still don’t. 2 “So what?” That’s what I got from a group of arts students sitting around in the bar. They acted like they couldn’t care less about my news, but they were probably envious. 3 “Can you have a look at my verruca?”

plantar warts

Count yourself lucky. It’s much worse to be subjected to the long saga, in multiple episodes, of their entire medical history. This is when you get envious of those jobless arts graduates. 4 “The only thing that works for my migraines/arthritis/autism is kinesiology/homeopathy/acupuncture.” The implication is that allopathic medicine does nothing. Well, I’ll keep an open mind about that, only not so open that my brain falls out.

tablets

5 “You should get a job as a medical adviser on Casualty or something.” Yeah, right. Like nobody else with more experience wants to do it. 6 Perhaps the weirdest reaction was from my mother, who insisted I should now call her Dr Cooper. Why? “Because my daughter is a doctor, it’s like I’m the doctor. You may congratulate me now.” Get used to all of it. It may be a while before you hear the most welcome response of all: Thanks, doc. I feel a lot better.”

medical bag

Easy tweet: What happens when you become a #doctor? http://wp.me/p3uiuG-12N via @DrCarolCooper #medicine

Just a Little Prick with a Needle

Today’s tests are no biggie. Nothing like the ones Sanjay’s had in the past. Anyway, he’s feeling better than in a long time.

There’s already a queue of blood test patients waiting to be interrogated at reception. You only get a numbered ticket once the bossy boots at the desk finds out if you’re fasting.

NHS

Sanjay gets number 79. The display on the wall says 46. No wonder the place is packed. Pretty soon he’s finished reading the Metro. So he reads people.

The girl next to Sanjay isn’t fasting. She’s shedding sugar from her donut all down her ample front. Fact: nobody who eats donuts ever looks as if they need to eat. And right under the sign that says no eating, drinking or assaulting NHS staff, a man is chomping into a burger. A ketchup sachet lies at his feet.

The plastic chairs are hard. Sanjay wishes he weren’t so skinny. There’s also a bench for urgent patients. The urgent patients look terrible, as if expecting to snuff it while waiting. He was on that bench not long ago, but now he’s been promoted from living dead to living living.

It’s number 67 now. The snoozing woman in the seat next to Sanjay wakes with a start when her walking-stick falls over. Walking-sticks always do. You’d think someone would design a solution.

Some people have brought their entire family, along with their shopping, scattered in carrier bags in and around the chair legs. A toddler with a cold studies Sanjay then removes his finger from his nose and wipes it experimentally on the arm of the chair.

The phlebotomist who finally calls Sanjay isn’t just a phlebotomist. The badge says he’s a cannula technician too. He is about 5’3” and one of his spots is threatening to erupt. He only opens his mouth to ask Sanjay to confirm his name and date of birth. Blood is taken wordlessly. It’s important to make patients feel at ease in today’s patient-centred NHS.

test tubes

Out Sanjay goes, clutching a cotton wool ball to the crook of his elbow.

The imaging department is at the other end of the hospital, down a draughty corridor guaranteed to give you double pneumonia if you don’t have it already.

Nobody’s eating in x-ray. They’re too busy figuring out how to sign in. For chest x-rays it’s straightforward because you can go anytime Tuesday to Friday from 9 to 11am and from 3 till 5pm. He doesn’t like to ask what the hell they do 11-3, not to mention all day Monday.

If you have an appointment, a state-of-the-art machine scans your letter. If you don’t have an appointment, you go to the desk. There’s a third machine that dispenses numbered tickets.   A young man in a moon-boot is waiting patiently while someone tries to fix that one.

Sanjay hangs around the desk while a receptionist makes a hash of explaining a test to the patient in front of him.

Finally Sanjay is told “Take a seat and you’ll be called by your name.” He thanks his lucky stars he’s called Shah, not something like Sivaramalingham. He sits by a wall decorated with enticements to give blood, volunteer for the League of Friends’ shop, give up smoking for good, get help with your alcohol problem, report domestic violence, and donate your organs as soon as you finish with them.

There’s a lot more activity here than in blood-testing. For one thing, there are two calling systems. The staff have the knack of calling out a patient’s name at the exact same time that the automated system calls out numbers. Means nobody can hear either announcement, so patients keep getting up to ask what’s going on, then coming back to their seats, head shaking in disappointment.

One patient has got the system figured out. Now she’s giving out to all and sundry the phone number of the professor’s PA, which is, she reckons, the only way to get your x-ray done and have the results sent to your doctor in the same century.

Only the old man next to Sanjay is immobile. He’s wrapped in so many layers of woolly clothes that he has to sit bolt upright. Probably been wearing them a while, judging from the smell.

Sanjay needs the toilet but it’s out of order. This means a trek halfway round the hospital to find one that works. He could have just asked at the desk for a dozen specimen containers and filled those.

hospital gownFinally it’s his turn for x-ray.  

He is shown into a cubicle and handed a gown. Then he studies the grainy instructions on the wall.

Sanjay tries to tie it as per the picture, but fails. Ah. Two of the tapes are missing.   He goes into his x-ray bare-chested like Putin.

The radiographer tuts.

Two hours for two simple tests. Finally Sanjay breathes a sigh of relief and exits to the fresh air, rushing straight into a crowd of smokers by the revolving doors.

 

Next week it’s the London Book Fair. I look forward to meeting friends old and new, and reading an excerpt from my novel to fellow indie authors. I have yet to choose the passage, but you can bet Sanjay will be in it.

A Week to Remember in the Surgery

“An alcoholic is someone who drinks more than his doctor” thinks Geoff as he attacks the second bottle of red.  This isn’t going to help, but it’s Friday and, let’s face it, it’s been a bit of a week.  He waits for the microwave to do its thing with dinner.

Geoff is a family doctor in suburban London, or he would be if he were real.  As it is, he’s just a figment of my imagination.  At 38, he’s divorced and already worn out.

On Monday, Geoff had. expected a two-minute silence but nobody had read the memo.  “Was there a memo?” says the practice manager.  It was a mystery how the staff always take note of the senior partner’s memos though.

His colleagues in the practice think losing two minutes at 11am would be completely out of order.  Especially when Remembrance Day falls on a Monday.  Especially when there are targets to meet, hoops to jump through.

crumpled poppyThe practice nurse is wearing a poppy, now crumpled out of shape and dangling precariously from its pin.  One of the receptionists has one too. The rest don’t bother.

So at the precise moment when Geoff thought he might be standing shoulder to shoulder, if not with all those who serve, then at least with all those who work in the health centre, he’s peering at a patient with spots.

“What can I do for you today?” asks Geoff.  Every doctor knows you never ask what’s wrong today, because patients reply that’s what they came to find out. You don’t ask them what brought them, either. Not unless you want to hear about the 168 bus.

By way of reply, he unzips his flies and whips it out.  That’s where the spots are.  The patient wants antibiotics.  Geoff wants him to get checked out properly.  So he sends him to the Pox Palace, but he uses the correct name instead: sexual health clinic.

On Wednesday the computer database is down.  Turns out it’s a national outage.  “National outrage, more like” fumes Geoff.  Still, he likes idea of free-range consulting.  He can look people in the eye and do proper medicine instead of being fixated on the computer screen.  Funny how much easier it is to listen when you’re not at the mercy of stupid pop-up menus ordering you to ask if they’re depressed, check their medications, and offer a change of contraception.

But by the time the computer’s back on at 11.30am, he’s accumulated pages of illegible patient notes and 20 patients who really need to be seen again.

It’s late on Friday when Geoff finally leaves. He sees that the wall by the No Smoking sign outside the health centre has been used to stub out cigarettes. And he can guess which patients did it.  He goes and scrubs it, because nobody else will.

Now it looks like this.small dirty wall

Surely that entitles him to a bonus glass of wine or two.

 

Alcohol abuse is common in doctors but the expression ‘drunken sailor’ has a lot of truth in it.