NHS helpline has turned us into a nation of worriers

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Quiz question: When I called the NHS 'urgent care' line 111 for advice because my one-year-old had picked up something slimy in the garden and eaten some of it in the split second when my back was turned, what did the operator need to know first?

Whether or not she was gasping for breath? As Roy Walker would have said on Catchphrase, it's good but it's not right. Was it whether or not she was passing any blood? Our survey says eh-errr.

No, before all the questions about her medical condition, an assessment of which would determine if she needed an ambulance, the 111 operator asked me this: "Can you tell me the patient's ethnicity?"

Call me crazy, I've been called worse, but isn't that the most irrelevant question since the prison hairdresser asked Anne Boleyn if she wanted a trim?

Everyone who calls 111 is, and I don't think I'm assuming anything here, human. The effect of ingesting a potentially poisonous substance will be the same wherever in the world our ancestors originated. If I'd called up and begun meowing down the phone, perhaps the operator might have wanted to know my species so he could direct me to a vet but that was definitely not asked.

We moved on to the questions concerning my daughter's physical condition (fine, by the way, I just needed to know if there was anything we should do) and I was transferred to a nurse. Not knowing what it was she had picked up, the nurse kindly reassured me that only a tiny proportion of wild mushrooms are lethal and that only if my daughter started being sick would we need medical help. Just as I was about to thank her and hang up, she dropped this bombshell: "Given her age, I'd feel better if she was checked out at hospital."

Off we went to the overstretched local A&E department for three hours before we were told that she was fine, in the waiting room with a prisoner handcuffed to his wheelchair by the G4S security men and with children who really did look like something was wrong as they nursed giant eggs on their heads or sat listless with tear-streaked cheeks due to some undisclosed infection. We felt hugely guilty taking up the doctor's time. But what could we do? The professionals had told us to go. If we ignored her advice what sort of parents would we be?

The more advanced we get the more backwards everything becomes. Outside of surgery hours, I could ring up and get immediate medical advice, once I'd confirmed my daughter was white British, and even speak to a nurse. It should be brilliant. But in compensation-culture Britain, where personal injury lawyers advertise on the back of hospital leaflets, with the NHS under constant scrutiny, the professionals dare not tell you everything is fine however slim the chance it is not in case you sue them. If that means you adding to the problem of A&Es pushed beyond their limits, so be it.


I'm cross. But more than the man who thought 'urgent care' meant asking me my daughter's ethnicity, more than the nurse who could not risk telling me everything was fine, I'm cross with myself for giving in and going to hospital. I should have trusted my own judgment and channelled the parents of my grandparents' generation, who'd have taken one look at a child eating a toadstool, called her a daft ha'porth and sent her off down the mines, up a chimney or to play with lead paint.

In the 21st century the information we need to reassure us is there at the touch of a button. If someone calls 111 and says they feel like a pair of curtains they'll get sent to A&E as a precaution, rather than told to just pull themselves together.

Keith Harrison is away

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