On Saturday, I visited a friend who has just had major open-heart surgery at the Royal National Jubilee Hospital at Clydebank, the national centre of excellence for heart surgery in Scotland. The operation involved sawing open the rib cage, pulling it apart, removing veins from the arms and stitching them into the heart in place of weakened arteries. There, that just rolled off the tongue. The operation, although 'routine' in that hospital, is simply miraculous and a superb example of NHS professionalism at its very best - and many operations like that are carried out daily. To put this operation into perspective, wounds like that sustained on the battlefield would be fatal.
Therefore, it pains me to hear almost nightly on the BBC TV News that the NHS is about to collapse because elderly folk in need of care have to wait on trolleys in Accident & Emergency units etc. The BBC seems to specialise in picking out flaws in the crust of an enormous NHS pie and can always find a victim to support their case. Balanced reporting is not required: '10,000 successful operations today' does not make a headline. 'Old lady wets pants while left in trolley,' does (distressing though that is).
So, how good is our NHS? Who knows? How long is a piece of string? The NHS, along with the military, is one of the few remaining nationalised industries. It is mind-blowingly enormous, has a budget greater than many countries and has the inescapable problems of any state-run monopoly. It is a political sacred cow so large and sensitive that no political party dare attack it. Three of its greatest problems are over-expectation by the public, abuse of the system and the endemic instinct to cover up mistakes. Heaven help an NHS whistleblower. (I know. I once blew the whistle).
So is privatisation the answer? This week we learned of a surgeon in private practice who was conducting on an industrial scale, unnecessary mastectomies on cancer-free women, his motive apparently being to make money. That could not have happened in the NHS, one hopes. But the offending surgeon had worked in the NHS and had been under some sort of scrutiny there for his medical peformance. His escape route was private practice where scrutiny seems to be less rigorous.