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By Alzheimer’s Society

Lords Diary: Baroness Wheatcroft

Image by: Jack Sullivan / Alamy Stock Photo

4 min read

Gazing across the Thames from my hospital bed in Tommy’s, I was desperate to get back to work...

“It’s a mental health issue.” A disembodied voice tries to sound reassuring as its owner pokes his head through a temporary gap in the curtains around my bed. As the cursing and yelling from the bed opposite continues, this seems a reasonable conclusion. But the concerted efforts of the emergency team readying to wheel the noisy newcomer into surgery indicate that this is something more than a breakdown; it is Saturday night in Waterloo, the violent results of which regularly add to the workload at St Thomas’s Hospital.

From behind my curtain, I marvel at the extraordinary tolerance and sympathy with which the victim is treated. No one responds to the abuse, all the effort is on trying to calm down one very frightened and hurt individual.

Having just spent almost three weeks in Tommy’s, my overwhelming impression is of totally dedicated people doing everything they can to achieve the best for their patients. It is hard to imagine there could be a more international workforce anywhere in the world and I feel remarkably lucky to have been cared for by such an array of talent, united by a remarkable team spirit.

For many of them, that team spirit helps them cope with long and difficult commutes to work. Central London property prices mean that many nurses face a journey of well over an hour once they have handed over to the next shift and left the ward, something that rarely happens on time. Many are, reluctantly, exploring the possibilities of leaving the NHS, firstly for “the Bank”, which gives them more flexibility over shifts, but, longer term, for potential relocation overseas.

 I feel remarkably lucky to have been cared for by such an array of talent

The problems they are confronting go so far beyond the merely medical. People with dementia can need surgery; in some cases, that can necessitate 24-hour one-to-one care and loud protests should there be any changes to those care arrangements. The growing number of people living alone, particularly amongst the elderly, means that many patients are nervous about returning home after a hospital stay.

On the positive side, technology continues to advance. The X-ray machine that travels to the ward to photograph the patient rather than the patient having to be wheeled to the X-ray department struck me as a major innovation. And the open-heart surgery, which has given me a new atrial valve, and perhaps another 15 years, is no longer the rarity it once was.

The latest innovation to hit Tommy’s and its hospital trust partner, Guy’s, is EPIC (an electronic health records system). On top of their day jobs, all the staff were having to familiarise themselves with EPIC during my stay. This is an effort to bring a much-needed extension of computerisation to the way the hospitals are run. Those with long memories will recall a write-off of around £10bn when a national attempt to do this was, eventually, abandoned in 2011. Going trust by trust must have a higher chance of success and, while mention of the project did generally elicit the view that teething problems were inevitable, it was the overwhelming wish to make it work that was most striking.

Gazing across the Thames from my first bed in Tommy’s, I was desperate to get back to work and make the most of the extraordinarily privileged position those of us on that side of the river enjoy. We can make a difference. We had fought a long battle to persuade the government that there should be an NHS Workforce Plan and, eventually, the undeniable sense of this proposition had been acknowledged.

Having seen one of our top teaching hospitals in action, I’m now clearer than ever that what the NHS needs is not simply more money, but money better spent. And those I talked to during my stay would assure anyone prepared to listen that the people who know how that money should be spent are the practitioners. After what they have done for me, I certainly wouldn’t argue with that proposition!

Baroness Wheatcroft is a Crossbench peer

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