Richard Smith’s Miltonic torment – calling the NHS

Richard Smith I ring the Kent and Sussex Hospital to try and find out when my mother can expect to have her hip replaced. I’m worried that the hospital may have sent her a letter and that she may have lost it—as she has become very forgetful. Indeed, she’s dementing.

After pressing the few inevitable buttons I’m through to the switchboard. The receptionist asks if I know the name of my mother’s consultant. I don’t. She connects me to a number that rings for a while and then cuts me off. I ring the switchboard again again and am connected to the fracture clinic. Somebody tells me that the waiting list is kept at Maidstone Hospital and gives me a number to ring.

I keep ringing that number for the next hour. It’s always engaged. Eventually I ring Maidstone Hospital. The receptionist tries to connect me to the number. It’s engaged. We discuss other strategies. I ask if it would make a difference if I knew the name of my mother’s consultant. She says it might and connects me to somebody who should be able to tell me his name. I am connected to somebody who can tell me, but she says it won’t make much difference as I’ll still need to call “planned services.”

I say that I’ve been ringing for a long time without luck. She asks what number I’ve been ringing and tells me that she’s never heard of that number. She gives me another one.

Ringing the new number, I’m given two choices—outpatient or inpatient services. I go for inpatient services. A male voice tells me that the line is very busy but that my call is important to the hospital.

Then the same voice begins to say at about 30 second intervals: “Your call is in a queue. Please hold whilst we try to connect you.” I don’t feel it’s necessary to remind me so frequently that I’m in a queue: I’d worked that out. Between his statements I can hear both the ringing tone and music (well something close to music).

After a few minutes a female voice joins as well: “Please be a little patient. You will be connected to the next free agent.” She sounds put out, and the phrase “be a little patient” suggests that I’m not being sufficiently patient. I’m amused not annoyed. The ringing tone and music keep going interrupted by the male voice repeating its message.

The female voice is less regular, and after a while the message changes to: “Please be a little patient. There is still one caller ahead of you in the queue.” This is very encouraging. It surely can’t take that long to tell one patient the date of his or her admission. But after giving me that message perhaps two or three times the voice reverts to the previous message. What happened to the one patient, I wonder. Am I now back at the end of the queue?

I’ve been on now for perhaps 15 minutes, and I’m beginning to think that I can’t stand much more and that perhaps I should ring off. But I don’t have to make the decision—because suddenly I’m cut off.

An hour later I try again. I have the same experience but have to ring off after 8 minutes to make an important business call.

The next day I try again. I decide that I’ll start with the direct number I was given that was always engaged. Pleasingly it rings. But it continues to ring for several minutes without being answered. I go back to the number with the voices. The voices start again, although today the woman comes in very quickly. Amazingly after about four minutes the phone is answered. What bliss.

But then I discover that my mother is no longer on the waiting list. She rang in two weeks ago to cancel the operation. She, of course, has no memory of this, and perhaps she simply rang to say that her hip wasn’t hurting. I spoke to her yesterday, and we agreed that it would be good to have the operation—because it’s the nature of the pain that it comes and goes.

I ask if she can be put back on the list. The answer is no. We must go back to the GP and start again. I ask that all future correspondence be sent only to me—as I’ve asked before. The woman on the phone agrees—somewhat remarkably, I think, as she has only my word that I’m my mother’s son.

Perhaps I’ll ring up and ask for Madonna’s hospital letters to be sent to me. That might be lucrative. Well, at least I did eventually speak to a human being. Born four years after the NHS began I’m trained to have low expectations. My mother’s are even lower. But what about 25 year olds?

  • Anna Donald

    Poor Richard! Since having a chronic illness I’ve spent countless idle hours listening to muzak while switchboards live up to their name, switching you from one black hole to the next. How you fare is so operator-dependent, literally. Patients must be patient, not. I hope your mother gets her op soon.

  • Dr John Nottingham


    it is not only the NHS. I have had a similar experience recently with a major (private) bank, a (mutual) building society and countless other (private) organisations. My wife was recently passed from one operator to another by a (privatised) water company. The latter still has not responed to our complaint after a week.

    They all claim our calls are important to them but evidently NOT important enough to employ enough staff to man the telephones.

    So please do not single out the NHS, this sort of customer service applies across the board.

  • Dr Stefan Slater

    Hello, Richard. You’ll remember our joint short story compt at the RCPSG. Poor Giles Gordon died ca 5 yrs ago of a head injury at home. I nearly had a MI reading your account which you should send to the SoS for Health. I had horrendous problems with my own, now almost 97-year-old, father re a broken neck femur. But what can be done about all this ? It’s ironic when the importance of good communication is being emphasised. What you must do is ring your mother’s GP, get the consultant’s name and call him. Don’t hesitate to mention who you are, even if the need to do so is uncomfortable and wrankles. I wish you luck and hope you yourself keep well. I now live in lovely Edinburgh and am still working even thoug suposed to be retired. I note the recent GMC decision to cease exemption from the annual retention fee for doctors over 65 on the grounds of age discrimination !!! Stefan.

  • Leonard Peter

    Why didn’t you just write enclosing your mum’s written consent to letting the hospital release her information?

    That will save everbody’s time and protect your mum’s privacy


    I rang Edinburgh sick kid’s yesterday- was put straight through to a secretary- left a message. She rang back at 8.30am and sorted through my muddled appointments saving me a wasted trip this afternoon! Thankyou.