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Thursday 6th May 2021

My pointless NHS taxi – a waste of public funds

Through the stained glass, I could see what looked to be a grey-haired man in his sixties, eyes squinted, peering in.

I opened it, to which he enquired, looking very confused: “Are you Madeleine Sutherland?”

I confirmed I was.

I had, fifteen minutes earlier, called up NHS 111 service to ask for advice about a sharp chest pain that I’d been experiencing for a couple of days. The nurse on the other end had asked me a number of questions, incorrectly writing down some of my of answers, it turned out (when I got to the hospital, I discovered she’d recorded that I was born in 1982 instead of 1992).

She then concluded that I needed an A&E appointment to get checked out. When she asked how I’d be getting to the hospital, she seemed unsatisfied with the answer that I’d ‘walk it’ and said she’d order me a taxi. So, here we are.

Some hospitals spend hundreds of thousands of pounds each year on private car hire.

I hesitated somewhat; the taxi driver had arrived a bit sooner than I’d expected, and I wanted to make sure that I had enough money to pay him.

“Will £10 get me there,” I asked.

“The hospital’s paid for it,” came the response.

I was a little bit puzzled, if not grateful. I’d never heard of this before.

During the journey, I quizzed my taxi driver a little bit more. It turns out this is something the NHS regularly does, and is supposedly part of a quieter sneaking privatisation, awarding contracts to private firms.

When I got back, a quick Google revealed that this has been going on for a while, this Daily Mail article reporting that some hospitals spend hundreds of thousands of pounds each year on private car hire.

I was embarrassed – I could have walked to the hospital and a taxi seemed a bit too much.

My taxi driver also let me know that sometimes they’re required to assist people in wheelchairs to get into their cars and out the other side.

“That’s what I was doing looking through your door window,” my driver said. “I was trying to understand how a wheelchair could get through.”

He showed me a set of directions that he’d been given on his mobile phone. It did, indeed, inform him that I was going to be in a wheelchair.

I felt a little bit embarrassed. I’d told the 111 provider that I could walk to the hospital, so this seemed a bit too much.

As we approached the hospital, the cab’s fare indicator read £4.20 on it, so even if the taxi hadn’t been complimentary, I could have paid for it with my tenner. That said, the taxi driver was friendly and talkative, as they often are.

I got where I needed to go and I was grateful (although a little ashamed) for the attention – but it struck me from our conversation that these taxi companies were ill-equipped to deal with the kinds of patients they’d been tasked with transporting (I was definitely one of the more mobile). A taxi, after all, is not an ambulance.

I also question whether giving taxpayer money to private firms is really healthy for the NHS, especially when the end user seems sometimes – well, at least in my case – not to be in need.

My chest pain? Oh, it was nothing much – just stress or too much caffeine. Or both.

I’ll live to hail another lift.

Maddy Sutherland
Maddy Sutherland

Maddy is a freelance illustrator who lives in Glasgow. She's recently graduated and is working hard to make ends meet. Self-employed? Read Maddy's experiences here.

1 Comment
  1. Dear Madeleine,

    It would not be the nurse who accumulated your demographic details. Nurses are clinically trained, so this would be a waste of resources. Demographics and personal data are collected by administrators prior to your telephonic contact with a clinician.

    Sharp chest pain may be cardiac or respiratory in origin, hence the need to isolate the origins of “sharp chest pain”. Chest pain is very uncommon in young people adding further impetus to clarify your symptoms through appropriate lines of questioning. As chest pain is uncommon in younger people, it is appropriate to get a baseline electrocardiogram that may identify anomalies in your cardiac activity. Being a telephone triage service, the clinician would have had to refer you to the nearest facility that could perform the ecg. You become the clinical responsibility of the clinician you have made contact with who cannot allow you to walk to this facility. Hence the need to ensure that you are transported quickly to this facility. If you had an unexplored heart problem and had a cardiac event in a public setting, this would have serious consequences not only for the clinician but also for yourself. Evidently you were concerned about this alarming symptom that prompted you to make the initial call? I am unsure what you were expecting? Antibiotics?? Walk to a hospital with chest pain? Chat?

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