How often do we hear of waste within the NHS? Barely a week goes by where some distant politician doesn't remind us how very inefficient our health service is. In fact, it isn't and the latest international survey found that it was actually the 2nd most efficient health service in the developed world. We spend just 9.2% of our GDP on healthcare, whilst the average in other countries is 11-12% (WHO)
But I don't think I've EVER heard anyone ask a patient about waste. Can you ever remember seeing a panel debate on Sky, BBC, ITV or C4 news discussing healthcare that included an actual patient? Someone who uses the system and sees a different perspective? God forbid we should ask the people who actually have to use the system, what would they know?
Well, actually we know a lot. We see the medicines opened for just one dose, then thrown away. We see the extortionately expensive £1,000 bags of liquid feed thrown away because no-one thought to put them in the fridge, rendering them useless.
Recently, I watched a Netflix documentary about a brilliant brain surgeon who went to give a lecture in Kiev back in the 80s. He was so appalled at the lack of specialism and facilities, that every year since, he has returned to Kiev and carried out as many of the most complicated cases of brain surgery he can fit in.
He crams his suitcases with equipment and devices that just aren't available to ordinary people in Kiev, equipment that we would use once and throw away. He risks the wrath of the Russian authorities with every case he takes on. One mistake and he felt there was little doubt he'd go to jail. The doctor he works with in Kiev has already been suspended twice for helping him.
But there was a moment, when the doctor from Kiev showed the drill he used to get through skulls. It was an ordinary Bosch hardware drill and he explained that the drill bit was one the UK doctor had bought over TEN years ago and he'd been using it ever since. The UK doctor estimated that just on those drill bits alone, each one used once and then discarded, his hospital spent £40,000. That's one instrument of very many used by one surgeons every day, up and down the country.
A few days ago, I finally had the line fitted into my vein that they would feed me through. It is done in theatres under strict sterile conditions. The Dr inserting it mentioned that the scissors he was using were "one-use". They appeared to be very sturdy, stainless steel scissors, very similar to the ones you can buy for home haircutting. Even in the stores, these are expensive, around £12-£20. Anything bought through the NHS - perversely for an organisation with such huge procurement power - seems to cost 3 times more than the high street equivalent. He snipped through one sterile plastic line with them and that was that. They didn't even touch my body or blood.
So why do we do this? Surely things like scissors and drill bits and scalpels can be effectively sterilised to use again? Sure, we don't want surgeons using blunt scissors or drill bits but one-use???
We do it, because at some point, a very serious condition has been found to be transferred by re-using anything used in a sterile environment. The results may have been statistically imperceptible, perhaps just 2 or 3 cases in a million, but because of that, every last implement must be disposable. So, for instance, we might make sure that every single surgical pack used is thrown away after use, because 2 people were infected with CJD ("mad cow's disease") at the peak of the public interest over it. Even when we can be totally sure that whatever bacteria or virus causing a certain condition is killed under sterile cleaning, the chance that somehow just one scalpel or pair of scissors misses the bleach-bath means that we waste another few billion per year.
There have been several studies into how many "avoidable deaths" there are in the NHS every year. Results ranged from 10,000 to 40,000. The most recent was thought to be the most accurate, using the most detailed methodology and it put the figure at 12,000. The majority of those deaths were due to understaffing or under-resourcing. If we could save, say, even half of those lives for the sake of 2 or 3 aren't we peculiar not to?
Ethically, this might be a difficult question, but as a nation, are we prepared to accept risks many, many times smaller than, say, being hit by lightening twice or winning the lottery, to save many billions of our tax money from literally, being thrown away? And if that minuscule risk means that we take much, much smaller risks with lives in other areas by providing a better funded service to every member of the public rather than legislating for the exception rather than the rule, might the public choose to accept it?
Perhaps this isn't something the NHS or it's staff should decide. Perhaps we should have a public debate and allow everyone to have a say?
NHS managers are making difficult decisions every day as they try to cut vast sums from their budgets without affecting patient care. Perhaps very expensive cancer drugs that can only extend life rather than save it become unavailable, or patients are discharged to soon. If this measure could save many billions of pounds every year, should we not at least consider it?