When Brits are asked why they would like to live abroad – or, if they already do, why they don’t want to return to the UK – an increasingly common answer is that they fear, and that’s the word, falling victim to the low standard of medical care in their native country. That’s no surprise to anyone who follows the media across the Channel with their endless flow of reports of neglect and incompetence in hospitals and especially when older patients are concerned. These cannot be dismissed as anecdotes about untypical incidents. They regularly evoke a chorus of confirming testimonies.
Just one example: the daughter of an 81-year-old retired merchant navy officer who had entered an NHS hospital for a minor operation related what happened when he contracted an infection – one of those notorious hospital bugs: “He was shouted at and belittled by nurses and when he soiled his sheets and asked for clean pyjamas they laughed at him.” Recently the Daily Mail invoked the Freedom of Information Act to gather data on such cases from across the country that they used to construct a grim league table of “Britain’s rudest hospitals” (warning: don’t get sick in Leicester; two of the twelve worst were in that city). One nurse confided that the data collected understated the problem: “Many people don’t complain because they are scared.” Both doctors and nurses were fingered for their uncaring behaviour which sometimes proved lethal: in 2010, 43 patients starved to death on hospital wards, 11 died of thirst and 78 died of bedsores. The older you are the more likely you’ll be abused by those white coated figures whose professional oath commits them “to first do no harm”. Shockingly, the General Medical Council has found it necessary to issue a directive to doctors urging them “to treat elderly patients with respect and to ensure they could eat, drink and wash”.
And worse even: a report commissioned by the Royal College of Nursing found that “NHS patients got an unacceptable level of care from a growing army of unqualified healthcare assistants who have taken over nursing roles on wards”. Untrained and ignorant, their presence is a standing menace to the welfare of patients. No hospital system is perfect but in France there is no widespread dysfunction comparable to this. As one elderly man told us recently, “I’ve just been in a public hospital for an operation. I can’t fault how they treated me. It was excellent.”