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Posted Tue 30 January 2018

Did you see the recent BBC2 programme Surgeons – On the Edge of Life? If you missed it, do catch it on iplayer. It’s a gripping watch and any squeamishness is gone by the 5 minute mark as you root for both patients and medical staff.

We do love a private hospital, from the glossy magazines in Reception, to the television above the bed and the enticing menus. We hear such horror stories about the NHS: winter scares about people lined up on trolleys for hours on end, overstretched A&Es and budget cuts. Anyone lucky enough to have health insurance can often choose the hospital, the date and the surgeon. They can fit in their treatment between their holidays and social engagements. Medicine almost becomes a lifestyle choice. Their insurance company has found out what is be done, where and by whom, how long it will take and what follow up is needed. All will likely go to plan with no surprises.

This programme shows a different type of medicine and a different side to the NHS. The cases shown won’t be done privately. No insurance company or private hospital will touch these last chance saloon patients. Outcomes are unpredictable. No one even knows how long the surgery will take. No matter how well prepared, there will be surprises as surgery proceeds. This is pushing the boundaries of medicine.

What the NHS does, and what is so very precious about it, is to choose and train doctors: up the ranks they go, via routine run of the mill cases and clinics full of ‘seen it all befores’, until they are trusted to go into the unknown. At that point the NHS, with the backing of the British government, for no private sector company will do this, backs these medics to go into uncharted territory. Or to mix metaphors, to skate where the ice is thinner. To go where there is no certainty, to push the limits of medicine, to explore new techniques, to follow a hunch that the thousands of hours of training and experience leads them to think might just work for a patient with no other hope. This is how medicine goes forward. This is how medical knowledge is increased.

The docs have to be backed because at times it may go wrong. They need to have the government right behind them, supporting them when it does so they can’t be sued into oblivion or crushed until they burnout. For in every one of these three-steps-forward-one-backwards case, the NHS shoulders the liability, takes it on the chin, regroups and pushes forward again. Tessa Jowell, herself a cancer patient, spoken movingly in the House of Commons of the importance of allowing experimental treatments and techniques for those with no other hope.

However many complaints you’ve heard about the NHS, this programme will make you proud to be British. As you watch the patients sitting up in bed after surgery and hear the docs planning their evening in the pub, you will wipe a tear from your eyes. No one does it better.

Patience Wellbeing, Plastic Surgery Blogger