It had been a week since I became ill while on holiday in Madeira. My cough had got worse and I was still feeling very tired and shivery. So my usual strategy of giving it time was not working. I called my local GP surgery. ‘Yes, we can see you at ten past four.’ I just had half an hour to get to the village, but I could make it. I entered my date of birth and first letter of my surname on the screen on the wall and was told there was one patient in front of me and I would be called in 7 minutes. The young doctor was friendly and efficient, understood the problem and commented that ‘flu’ seemed to be lasting longer this year. He listened to my chest and almost apologetically, prescribed antibiotics which were given to me by the pharmacist 5 minutes later. The whole procedure had taken less than half an hour and by the next day, I was feeling much better.
Yet, this was the day on which headlines screamed that the NHS was in a worse crisis than ever before. Cancer operations were being delayed because beds were being blocked by people who could not be discharged because there was no social care provision for them. Four in ten hospital trusts in the UK are on major alert and not coping. Theresa May had even demanded that GP surgeries remained open at weekends to prevent the crisis in Accident and Emergency Departments. Sarah Wollaston, a former GP, who is Conservative MP for Totnes and chairs the House of Commons Health Committee, was incensed that GPs are being blamed for the problem.
Notwithstanding the fact that only bad news is newsworthy, year on year, it seems, there is increased demand on our beleaguered health care system and greater crisis. Nevertheless, funding for the NHS has increased every year for the last 25 years. MPs and the electorate continue to bolster the myth that the NHS is the envy of the world, available for all and free at the point of service.
That may have been true when I was training to be a doctor. Medicine seemed so much simpler back then. Most of the diseases that we treated had a definite cause, a distinctive pathology and by and large responded to specific treatment. Most infections responded to antibiotics; there were drugs for many other conditions, cancers were treated with surgery, diseases such as coeliac disease with diet.
How things have changed. About 50% of the illnesses that doctors deal with now have no obvious cause, no specific diagnosis and no effective cure. They are ailments related to patients’ lifestyles and life situations and comprise a number of interrelated factors. Treatment is more a matter of finding the particular combination of remedies that will help the individual patient. The problem is there is not the time or expertise to apply such individualised medicine in a health service that is designed on a 1940’s model and little enthusiasm for a major paradigm shift. As I found out, acute conditions are still managed very efficiently, but people with long term conditions, particularly those that are not well understood, often feel ignored and rejected by the system.
IBS is said by some experts to cost the government as much as 800 million pounds a year. Most of the direct costs are spent on negative investigations or failed treatments, but the figure also includes the economic cost of time off work. Nevertheless, people with IBS often complain that their GP does not have the time to understand them or treat them effectively.
When I took over full time responsibility for The IBS Network, we had a vision. The charity would be an essential resource, providing reliable and authoritative information on the role of diet, infection and stress together with advice on management that would help people find the solution that was right for them. Over the course of 8 years, we set up a comprehensive on-line self help programme, provided a rapid response service for email enquiries, created new local self help groups and maintained a regular telephone helpline service, but we never had enough funding to reach more than a small percentage of people with IBS in the UK. That needed more investment. How much more could be achieved if it had access to just a tiny fraction of the budget spent on IBS by the NHS. In 2016, The IBS Network spent £80,000 on servicing the needs of people with IBS. Nearly all that sum was obtained from public donations or subscriptions. There was no government funding and little funding from commercial organisations.
Although I have since retired from The IBS Network, Alison and her team in Sheffield remain dedicated to the original aims of the charity. They do, however, need your support. So why not contact your MP. Tell them about The IBS Network. With a modest investment, it could reach and help many more people with IBS.