Richard Smith: Will the NHS let me die of malaria?

Richard Smith
I’m about to spend two weeks in Nigeria and need antimalarial tablets, but it seems that the NHS cannot help me. If I come back with malaria, no doubt it will help me – with two weeks in intensive care and a post mortem if necessary.

It’s Monday morning, and I’m going on Saturday. I should have thought of it sooner, but I’m “only human.”

I start by ringing my GP. The receptionist tells me that I needed to have come six weeks in advance. Can I just see a GP? She says that’s not possible: I have to go the travel clinic, which happens once a week and isn’t happening this week anyway because the nurse is on holiday.

She tells me to go to another local clinic, which she describes as “walk in,” or a true walk-in clinic.

I decide to ring first. I Google the local clinic, ring the number, and discover to my surprise that I’m talking to a university department. The person on the other end says “this happens all the time,” and we discuss how it is happening.

After Googling again, I ring another number. The (small) centre actually has three practices, none of which seems to know a thing about the others. The first clinic tells me that they don’t have a clinic but one of the others might. They don’t.

I then guess that the receptionist at my practice confused two local clinics with similar names. I ring the other clinic, a more modern one, where they have nine choices of numbers to press once I get through. None is a travel clinic, so I try making an appointment. They don’t have a travel clinic and can’t help me.

Next I try the true walk-in clinic, which takes a long time to answer the phone. No, they don’t prescribe antimalarials.

At this point I give up and ask a GP friend to prescribe me antimalarials. Not everybody has this option.

Richard Smith was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.