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?