It was both our misfortune and fortune to find my uncle booked in to see a GP who was so newly qualified she was still under supervision.
Misfortune, because she was painfully clueless on the list of questions we’d agreed he needed answers to: explaining the baffling medical terms and numbers that made up the ‘diagnosis’ in the hospital’s letter to the surgery. Then explaining the treatment, possible side effects and likely course of the cancer – given the one word in the diagnosis we could both understand ‘widespread’. But fortune because the GP was sufficiently new to not realise she should probably hide evidence that the surgery’s systems had let my uncle down.
Let me explain: I booked the appointment because the only section of the hospital’s letter that was in plain English mentioned starting my uncle on ‘control’ treatment right away. Sadly, my own experiences caring for other elderly relatives mean I no longer trust any single part of the NHS to talk to other parts – much less keep the patient in the picture. As there hadn’t been a single peep from the surgery I took the initiative.
Having established she knew nothing about prostate cancer the new recruitment rifled through my uncle’s file and unearthed a second letter from the hospital, this one sent to the surgery two weeks earlier, setting out precise instructions for his treatment and asking them to organise it. I got her to print us off a copy and as she did so I struggled with the temptation to explode at failures in a system which still allows a letter relating to the treatment of widespread cancer to be slipped into a patient’s file without anyone acting on it.
What if I hadn’t had the thought ‘there’s been no word from anyone; I’ll make an appointment with the surgery’? What about the many thousands of elderly people who don’t have a clued-up relative or friend to advocate for them?
What I resent almost as much is the self-inflicted pressure I now feel to make a formal complaint to the surgery on behalf of all those vulnerable thousands – in the faint hope it might save, or at least improve, someone’s life one day. Yet if I don’t do it – if those of us who understand the system a little don’t make the time to keep pointing out the ways in which our health and care services are failing our loved ones – there’s no chance of change. You won’t want to hear this – but if you take one thing away from this post it is the need to stay on the case. Never assume that services are joined up; that different parts of the system are communicating with each other; that anything important really is ‘in hand’.
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