Doctor’s Diary: Where is the NHS going to recruit its ‘army of British nurses’ from?

Professor Stephen Hawking’s intellectual reputation as our greatest living scientist may be overrated – hence his never being awarded the Nobel Prize… – but his entertaining spat with Jeremy Hunt, whom he accused of “abusing scientific arguments” to justify government policies is right on the money.

In response, the Health Secretary defended his controversial plans for a so-called “seven-day NHS” – which prompted the protracted dispute with junior doctors – by citing a study ostensibly demonstrating that the understaffing of hospitals at weekends was responsible for 11,000 patients dying every year. Not so. In the words of Professor Nicholas Freemantle of London’s University College Hospital, who conducted the study: “It is not possible to ascertain the extent to which these excess deaths may be preventable; to assert they are avoidable would be rash and misleading.”

The same poorly thought-out non-solutions to the problems confronting the health service is apparent in Hunt’s extravagant though uncosted proposals of recent weeks, to variously hire “an army of British nurses”, recruit 21,000 more mental health staff and employ an additional 2,000 general practitioners from abroad. Where they are all to come from, how they are to be trained and paid for is no clearer than the physics of Prof Hawking’s black holes.

There are indeed substantial staff shortages, but it would be more sensible to tackle the underlying cause which for general practitioners are – unlike Jeremy Hunt’s cherry-picking of the data – well-documented: driven to despair by the bureaucratic nightmare of hitting government-imposed targets, they are taking early retirement in droves.

Hospital boredom

The spirit-sapping tedium of even a brief stay in hospital, as recently mentioned in this column, has prompted a spectrum of proposals as to how best to counter it. From personal experience, medical anthropologist Jeremy Dearling suggests it provides an opportunity to rediscover one’s past. Debilitated by a couple of weeks in intensive care, he resolved to systematically recall every detail of his childhood – the schools he attended, his fellow pupils and teachers, his favourite jokes and radio programmes and so on. “I was amazed by just how many memories were still retained,” he writes. “It occupied my attention for days.”

Alternatively, a woman who had to spend three weeks in King’s College Hospital last year following an operation to repair an aortic dissection advises treating it as a holiday (“The best possible care, staff available 24/7 at the press of a bell… what’s not to like?”) – and an opportunity to indulge in all those pastimes one would feel guilty about pursuing in normal life: puzzles, patience, doodling and daydreaming.

It helps, of course, if there is some common bond with one’s fellow patients, such as the four miners in the orthopaedic ward of Leeds Infirmary in the 1960s recovering from fractures sustained during a mining accident. Another reader recalls how they passed the time playing a game along the following lines: “I am leaving Leeds town hall on my left, I turn right down George Street, left down Rossington, left again down Percival. How many Tetley pubs did I pass on my right-hand side?”

Stockings cure for wobbly knees

Finally, my thanks to a reader for passing on her simple remedy for her “wobbly” arthritic knees. “I can manage for a while and then suddenly have to sit down for a few minutes,” she said. Several weeks ago, prompted by an advertisement in this paper, she purchased a couple of pairs of woollen compression stockings, with most gratifying results, allowing her for the first time in ages to mow her (largish) lawn at one go without having to take a break. “They certainly work,” she writes, “and being woollen are comfortable even in warm weather.”

• Email medical questions confidentially to Dr James Le Fanu at

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