WHAT’S UP, DOC?
Some years ago I wrote and performed a sketch with the late and great Ronnie Barker - and if you’re reading this abroad and wondering who Ronnie Barker was, he was one of the main reasons for living in Britain last century. Ronnie and I did an odd and oddly successful and even oddly decorated radio series together and in this sketch I played the doctor and the great man played the patient.
Come in – come in, sit you down – sit you down – and what can we do you for today, eh?
(slowly) What seems to be the matter with you?
Oh. Right. That’s why I’m here. What I’ve come to you for. To find out.
(dubiously) Hmmm. (pause) I - see. What do you think the matter is?
Trouble in the old bread basket.
(after a considered silence) Trouble in the old - bread basket.
Yes. My tum tum. Sorry. My stomach. The dilatation of my alimentary
canal at the upper left of my abdomen.
Gotcha!! The old bay window! Right. And what seems to be the problem with the old bay window?
I’m not sure. I think it could be either reflux oesophagitis or failing that
Hold on. Hang about. (humourously) Who’s the doctor here? Eh? Hold on. Exactly. Who. Is. The. Doctor here?
And so it went on – with Ronnie as the patient gradually taking over the examination until he becomes the doctor and the doctor becomes the patient. At the end of the sketch, having diagnosed what is wrong with the doctor, the doctor asks the patient what’s to be done and the patient advises him to try and find himself a good doctor.
I thought about this the other day as I was sitting and sitting and sitting in the local surgery waiting and waiting and waiting to see the locum of my choice, the situation now being that most of the doctors in most practices such as ours are locums - and so despite the surgery’s public exhortation to see The Doctor of your Choice, the choice is really the one offered most famously to Hobson since the doctor you end up seeing is almost bound to be the one nearest the door.
Anyway – there I am sitting or sat or seated - whichever you prefer - and the longer I am sitting, seated or sat there the more I remember Ronnie and I doing this sketch and the more I laugh, which is not an act to be encouraged when you are seated, sitting or sat all alone in a crowded Doctor’s Eternity Waiting Room. Nevertheless and disregarding the look of flattened panic on the faces of the receptionists locked away behind their security glass, and refusing nurse’s offer of a straitjacket, I went on to try and imagine how we would do the same sketch today - only to realise that thanks to the total stultification of our once fine Health Service, forty years on it would probably come out very much the same as before if not even more farcical.
Except nowadays the doctor/locum would have a computer on the desk rather than the patient’s notes, so that when patient and doctor/locum reach the point of diagnosis, instead of interrogating you the patient further, the doctor/locum would turn to his/her PC and pick the internet’s brains. This has certainly happened regularly and without fail every time I have had to bite on the bullet and book an appointment with The Doctor of My Choice on the automatic NHS funded booking line - which far from booking you in to see the Doctor of Your Choice informs you robotically that no such a doctor or doctors by that name exist and instead books you in to see a totally unknown doctor at a time convenient to everyone but your ailing self – and when I finally get to keep an appointment I have had to make several weeks ahead, more often than not I find myself being examined by a locum for the regular locum who unfortunately has been asked to appear in locum tenens for one of the panel doctors who’s out doing a celebrity spot on local television.
The surgeries have also changed some little what. Instead of nice anonymous water colours of unrecognisable places and prints of cart horses pulling canal barges, on the walls you are now invited to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest everything that can, could, will or might go wrong with your body. There is no escape from this swathe of ill health graffiti, not even in what is so nicely described as the Patient’s Toilet, even though at this moment in time one is not even so much as an out-patient; in fact given the amount of precious hours you are kept waiting in surgeries everywhere, the comfort station should be retitled the Impatient’s Toilet. And even in here as I say there is no respite; besides the unwitty little verses pinned up over the chinaware by someone known as The Potty Poet (sic) about manual hygiene and noises etc. (don’t ask) there are livid and vivid blue posters demanding to know Whether You Have Had Sex? and if so Do You Realise you could have Chlamydia? Not note did you enjoy it - but that as a consequence of having a bit of the rumpy-pumpy you might now be well and truly diseased. Ugh.
Returning in shock to the waiting room, you will find just like myself that you have plenty of time to learn what else you may well have contracted during your working day and then your leisure and pleasure hours. Here you may read about whether or not and due entirely to you, you have had a stroke or are having one, likewise a heart attack, cirrhosis of the liver, lung cancer, Athlete’s foot or feet, in-growing anxiety, elephantiasis, interesting conditions of the waterworks, inflamed ego, or latent heterosexuality. By the time you have finished reading all this vital information (and you will have tons of time to read it, don’t worry) you will think that you have most if not every one of these conditions, all of which are fully described and lavishly illustrated either on the wall charts or verbally by the wall mounted neon red ticker tape gizmo that also solicits for your help in running coffee mornings for pre-teen pregnant mothers-to-be as well as announcing – very briefly - when the doctor is ready to see you. Incidentally, miss this last and invariably fleeting message and down the ladder you will go to wait another month and a half to see the Locum of Your Choice. Little wonder that all of us stuck waiting and waiting and waiting to see a Doctor Not of Our Choice in the NHS touring version of Huis Clos prefer to bury our heads in the yellowing pages of long outdated copies of the National Geographic Magazine, Cornish Life (is there one?), and Quad Biker, rather than accept what they are telling us, namely that all these diseases can be avoided by us simply cleaning up our act.
Believe me, one whole wall of the waiting room was and still I imagine is decorated with posters telling us how many calories there are in a teensy weensy measure of spirits, glass of wine or yard of ale, what will grow all over us, in us and around us if we dare to smoke, how many chocolate beans we need to consume to get dangerously raised cholesterol, how many weeks it takes to walk a fortnight and how many apples there are in a barrel of woodbine. After a good hour of contemplating these warnings and admonitions I came to this conclusion: the NHS would like us to stop doing everything we enjoy, relish and often delight in doing (as in Sex, see above) in order that the majority of us may live to be at least one hundred and seven, during which time because we are so disease free we will not trouble them by making appointments to see any poor and grossly overworked Doctor Not of Your Choice – and as a result of this, rather than having to fork out some money for some medicine (usually well past its sell-by date) on some of us old codgers who drink three glasses of wine a day, smoke a cigar at Christmas and don’t run the statutory marathon a month, the NHS can go on paying their hospital managers their great big salaries, bonuses and pensions while turning a blind eye to other old codgers being sent home from hospital under cover of night when they think no one is looking .
The only trouble with this blue sky thinking, however, is that if we do all live as predicted to this great and wonderfully healthy old age, who pray is going to look after us and how? If we all live to be a hundred and seventeen +, can and will the Health Police also guarantee that if we give up everything except hard labour there will be no more senility, fragility, instability or inability to remember where we put the car keys? I don’t think so. I don’t think so for one moment. In fact I doubt it entirely which is why I am writing to the Practice Manager of the Health centre to suggest (among other things, believe me – such as why you have to pay the NHS £20-25 for a referral from your GP to a specialist covered by your private health insurance – by going private if you can afford to do so, are you not saving the NHS money as well as making a bed available for someone less fortunate? I happen to think so) – anyway I’m writing in to suggest that the practice take down all this terrifying propaganda from their surgery walls and rehang those lovely harmless anodyne prints of Green Ladies, Harvest Time in Devon and mists over the Ganges since I feel quite sure that the moment that they do, people will stop making themselves ill from reading what they might be suffering from because of their appalling life style. And when we all do stop worrying unnecessarily there will be far less people in the waiting rooms, far more appointments available, a greatly reduced need for locums, and massive savings on their previously unsustainable practice expenses.
Who knows? You might even get to see The Doctor of Your Choice.