July 1, 2008

Veteran Doctor Looks Back to Early Days of the NHS

A GP who witnessed the birth of the NHS in 1948 will be speaking on Friday at a special service at Beverley Minster to celebrate its 60th anniversary. Alexandra Wood spoke to him.

HE may have retired more than 20 years ago but when Michael Whiting, 91, goes for a stroll near his old surgery in South Cave he still bumps into patients who greet him with "Hello Doctor."

Dr Whiting is one of a handful of GPs left who witnessed the huge changes the coming of the National Health Service bought.

Before the NHS the question of how much a patient could afford to pay had to be decided.

Some couldn't afford anything, others had "semi-insurance" from Friendly Societies and sick clubs.

Drugs were also limited - penicillin was the first antibiotic and reserved for the Forces until the end of the Second World War.

July 4, 1948 changed everything. Dr Whiting, who now lives in Howden, recalled: "I found it a great relief because you didn't have to worry about whether the patients could pay or whether they were insured or anything."

"You could give them any medication they required however much it cost and they didn't have to pay for it."

A year earlier Dr Whiting had opened his first surgery in a "terribly neglected" 18th century house in North Cave, having borrowed the massive sum of Pounds 1,500 and taking around 1,600 patients onto his books, most from an agricultural background.

Surgeries were held in the mornings and evenings, with home visits at all hours, and only one day off a week.

Many a life-time relationship with a patient started when he delivered them at home and over the years he got to know them so well, his wife Rita says, that he would "know by every facial muscle whether they were ill, frightened or nervous."

He recalls many anecdotes from his years of general practice: "In one outlying village there was a lady with 11 children and she never knew when she was having them. She had them in the toilet, she had them on the floor, in all sorts of funny places.

"I was rung up one night in the middle of the night by this chap who said he had a moth in his ear and it was driving him mad and he couldn't possibly drive. He was in a house up on the Wolds and I took an ear syringe and got out a good-sized one.

"He said: 'Give it to me I want to kill it!' How it got into his ear I don't know."

The precursors to branch surgeries were "houses of call" where people could call in for advice, or pre-arranged appointments.

One in Little Weighton had a cupboard in the scullery where drugs nestled alongside the onions and potatoes.

Over time it developed into a proper surgery, with a cupboard in the sitting room and the patients waiting in the kitchen - along with the budgerigar.

But those free and easy days eventually ended in the 1970s when Dr Whiting gave up the use of his own home and joined a joint surgery in South Cave. He says: "It became almost overnight a little bit bureaucratic which greatly increased as time went on."

Like many doctors Dr Whiting, is not a fan of Government proposals for polyclinics.

"It mucks up the relationship (with the patient). It is bound to.

"You ought to see if possible one GP all the time, simply because you know their circumstances and you know what things are pressing on them."

Staff from the Hull and East Yorkshire health community, past and present, as well as patients, have been invited to the service on Friday, which will be attended by Health Secretary and Hull West and Hessle MP Alan Johnson.

If he had any message for the Health Secretary what would it be? "I'd tell him to go easy on the bureaucracy - that's all."

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