Since being appointed as a shadow health minister in September I have been keen to spend some time on the front line to see what life is really like for hard-pressed NHS staff.
So I recently spent a night shadowing an emergency medicine consultant at the Countess of Chester hospital.
Accident and emergency units are the sharp end of the health service as this is where the many pressures congregate - I saw people presenting because they had been trying, unsuccessfully, to get a GP appointment for over a week.
Having arranged this visit for some time it was only a few days before that I realised that I had managed to choose the Saturday night before Christmas for my visit - normally one of the busiest nights of the year.
Although it certainly was busy and the pace was relentless some staff actually commented to me that it wasn't that bad for a Saturday night. There were enough staff on, just, it wasn't ideal and people had to wait longer than they would have ideally liked to (but mostly did so with great patience and appreciation for the pressures the staff were facing).
I could easily see how a sudden influx of patients or a particularly serious incident that required a lot of staff could significantly extend waiting times. There was one such incident - someone injured in a road traffic accident - and fortunately after some initial concern the injuries were found not to be life threatening. This meant that those staff involved could be released back to those that had been waiting patiently and by the end of the shift I could see that the average waiting time had come down from what it was at the start of the shift.
It was a real privilege to see the team in action throughout the shift, the way the doctors, nurses, and other staff seamlessly worked together to do their very best as quickly as they could for the patients. This was most apparent during the admission for the serious road traffic accident where a host of different staff all got on with one aspect of the patient's care or another, all independently of one another but coherently and smoothly together to provide the very best support for the patient. It was a real team effort and as well as the co-ordination the calm professional manner of all involved was equally impressive. And throughout the shift it was the staffs' attitude, dedication and professionalism that stood out most for me, exemplified by the Consultant I was shadowing.
Until you are actually there it is difficult to comprehend just how relentless the job is. Staff were working at full tilt and the nature of the work was such that they could never catch up with the demand - even when 'it's not that bad for a Saturday night'.
At the heart of the operation was the patient interaction and whilst the way the medical staff used IT was impressive, so much of the diagnosis, advice and treatment was administered personally and in a truly caring manner. In a world where more and more jobs are being replaced by technology it was noteworthy that much of what is done in accident and emergency has to be done by an actual person in a way that cannot readily be done by a machine.
So next time I hear politicians bemoaning those who work in the health service I will know that they do not understand the job these people do, the patience and skill they show and how without their goodwill the Health Service would grind to a halt. Every staff member I met went well beyond what could reasonably be expected of them to ensure that patients were seen as quickly as possible and nobody was left in pain unnecessarily.
It was very clear though that they could do an even better job if there were more of them and if we are to avoid loss of goodwill, burnout and ultimately more people leaving working for the NHS then entering it, we need to prioritise staff recruitment and retention.
It might be easier said than done but my night in A & E convinced me that if we are to have a successful NHS in the future then we must be prepared to properly resource it.