Melissa Kite

‘Protect the NHS’ is all very well, but when will the NHS protect us?

I have been offered a telephoned blood pressure appointment: how on earth is that meant to work?

‘Protect the NHS’ is all very well, but when will the NHS protect us?
What went on the day the blood pressure nurse rang up and said she wanted to wind a strap around someone’s arm and pump a squeezy ball down a phone line? [Photo: Dean Mitchell/iStock]
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After refusing to issue my HRT without a blood pressure test, the GP surgery rang to offer me an appointment.

‘I can come any time,’ I said, trying to be accommodating. Having complained about this particular practice before, I felt guilty. They have been very good at issuing me with repeat prescriptions through their online service during lockdown.

When a polite, cheerful receptionist said I could not have my HRT without an appointment this time, because my annual blood pressure test was due, I saw that as a good thing, a sign they were doing their job properly.

I made a mental note to write about how nice and efficient they were being in this case. Then the receptionist said: ‘I can offer you a telephone appointment next Wednesday.’

‘Telephone appointment?’ I said. ‘But I thought you said I needed my blood pressure testing.’

‘Yes, you do,’ she said, ‘but the nurse who does the blood pressure testing is now working from home. So…’

And her voice trailed off, but its echo kicked around in the land of Covid lunacy, bouncing off the walls of that hollow, terrifying place.

I had to prompt her. ‘Er, how is the nurse going to take my blood pressure over the phone?’

She reacted as if she had never been asked this before. ‘Oh!’ she said, sounding surprised. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know how they do it, actually. I suppose she will ask you some questions.’

‘I’m fascinated to find out,’ I said, and I started imagining the possible methods. The only thing I could come up with was that the nurse was going to ask me some leading questions about my lifestyle and family medical history and if I answered them in a particular way, I would be told to go out and buy a blood pressure monitoring device, take my own blood pressure and ring back with the reading, or possibly go online and wrestle with some hideously bureaucratic interactive blood pressure monitoring website.

‘So that’s next Wednesday, 11 a.m.,’ she said. And I said that was fine. But really I was thinking: what in the name of all that is holy is this world coming to?

The nurse whose job it is to take people’s blood pressure has taken herself home, presumably to shield from various either real or imagined Covid horrors, somehow convincing her superiors that it is possible to monitor blood pressure down the phone.

What I mind is not so much the idea that people don’t want to go to work any more, or that they are too frightened to, either with or without a set of quotation marks around the word frightened. What really annoys me is the stupidity of us all attempting to pretend that this attitude passes muster, when we have had to win wars by being brave in the not too distant past.

What went on, exactly, the day the blood pressure nurse rang up and said she wanted to pretend she could wind a strap around someone’s arm and pump a squeezy ball down a phone line?

In fact, they don’t even have to do that these days, do they? They attach an automatic digital machine to you, of the kind you could buy from the chemist and use yourself. They only have to push a button. But I suppose they have to come somewhere near the patient before pushing the button, and there’s the appalling matter of winding the strap around the patient’s arm — although now I think about it, you could easily have a system whereby the patient wound the strap around their own arm as the nurse, dressed like an astronaut, stood behind a curtain or lead wall.

Where this goes is remote medicine. They already do surgery with robots. We will all eventually have to buy our own medical monitoring equipment, or there might be a wristwatch the authorities lock on to us so we can be tested at any time, at the state’s convenience, remotely.

I hadn’t heard from a dear friend of mine for six months when I rang her the other day and she informed me she had been diagnosed and treated for cancer since we last spoke.

Feeling out of breath, she had called her NHS GP and they had offered her a Zoom consultation. She ended up going private, to a doctor in an actual consulting room who physically examined her and sent her for urgent X-rays, which revealed fluid where there should be no fluid, prompting further tests, which revealed a tumour the size of a melon on one of her kidneys.

‘Protect the NHS’ is all very well, but given the effort we have put into this enterprise for a year, would it be too rude to ask when the NHS is going to protect us?