Earlier this week I tasted my first experience of the NHS under the new regime of NHS/Private partnerships through the GP commissioning of services... and it wasn't good. It started with my GP informing me that he felt I needed an MRI scan. He told me he was going to commission the scan through a private health company to ensure it was carried out quickly. After two weeks I received a phone call from the booking department and it was arranged that I should visit a scanning centre in Waterloo in London as this was the nearest centre that could fit me in without a wait. So far, so good.
The day of the scan was the kind of bright, cold late autumn day that fills my heart with joy, so while I am a little bored of having to attend hospitals as they have been one of the few constants threading through my life since I was diagnosed with cancer as a baby, I thought I'd take my wife's advice and see the experience as an adventure. However the bus journey from our home in Camden was a portent of things to come as the driver acted as if he was driving a sports car, leading me to being thrown around in my wheelchair like a rag doll. Luckily my wife had come with me, so she assisted me to stay in my seat during the uncomfortable journey with an arm thrust across my chest. On arrival at the address of the scanning company it became obvious just how lucky I was that my wife had accompanied me to the appointment.
As we approached the front door of the building we spied a sign saying "For Wheelchair Access Please Contact Reception" (see picture above). However it had no number to ring and there was no obvious way of gaining the attention of the reception staff, so if I had not had someone to send in to ask for help I may have fallen at the first hurdle. My wife went in, and after a short while reappeared with two of the building's maintenance staff. Off we went to find the way in. I thought there must be either a back door or a hidden lift, but boy was I wrong. Instead it was made clear that the only way of getting into the building if you are a wheelchair user was to use to the vehicle ramp into the underground car park. Oh dear.
This ramp was very steep but it was the only way in, so down the ramp I trundled with my wife hanging on to the back of my chair incase I became a runaway cripple. At the end of the ramp there was a barrier, which had to opened manually by the car park attendant, meaning I had to try to come to a halt while still on this rather death defying ramp. Once the barrier was open I then had to do an Evel Knievel style jump over a grate which had holes in that were bigger than my wheelchair's wheels. Trust me once you've been thrown from your chair as your wheels get stuck in a grate like this one you never want to repeat it.
We were now in the bowels of the building. We wandered through the dank underground car park and I was then informed I needed to wheel up another series of steep ramps to gain access to the lifts that would take us to the floor of the scanning company. This time my wife acted as my motor to make sure I could make it up the ramps that were far too steep to be within planning code (When I'm not working as a media type I work as an access advisor to the building trade so I know all about the relevant planning, health and safety and fire codes - yes this does make me fun at parties). Finally we're in the lift, which was only just about big enough for my chair and my wife to fit into, and off we went. When we made it to the reception desk of the scanning centre, we were told "we keep telling the booking office not to send people in wheelchairs here but they never listen". I could go on, regaling you with how the scanning staff had no obvious training around assisting someone with mobility issues, how the MRI itself was just a little too small for my six foot three frame or how we ended up having to struggle our way out of the building without any help at all, but I think you get the idea.
How can this be the future of health care provision in our country? I am a fairly active wheelchair user and even I found it difficult to gain access to this facility and it's scanning equipment so I have no idea how someone with a more severe impairment might fair. If these private health companies wish to become part of the NHS system they have to ensure they comply with the legal requirements around access for disabled people. What's the point of a hospital that sick and disabled people can't get into? Is the plan for our NHS that it will only be for the healthy? Before our government rushes headlong into another ill thought out change in the way a national institution is run can we at least ensure that the new system is fit for purpose?