Overcrowded and Underfunded: 18th-Century Hospitals and the NHS Crisis

The problem of overcrowded hospitals in Britain is now an annually recurring one. Every year, especially in winter, operations are cancelled, treatments postponed and patients sent home because there simply isn’t bed space for them. A combination of increased admissions of the elderly in the winter months, seasonal outbreaks such as flu and norovirus, and the impact of weather-related accidents all serve to pile on the pressure to an already-embattled healthcare system.

Embattled Doctor!

According to the BBC, NHS and social care services are ‘at breaking point’, with an open letter warning the government that ‘things cannot go on like this’.http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-29501588. The story is now a perennial one. Every year (and in fact every couple of months) a mix of underfunding, overcrowding and staff stress puts the NHS in the headlines. Winter almost always exacerbates the problem. A year ago the outgoing NHS Chief Executive David Nicholson warned that the “toxic overcrowding” of accident and emergency departments in Britain not only impacted upon service levels but could have far more serious effects including higher levels of patient mortality and unsustainable levels of staff stress. The president of the ‘College of Emergency Medicine’ went even further, stating that the whole system was sailing dangerous close to complete failure. With the Daily Telegraph claiming that many patients were afraid to ask for help from staff pushed almost to their limits, the United Kingdom is perhaps still in the midst of what it last year called, “David Cameron’s care crisis”.

Ann-NHS-demonstrator-dres-007 Image from http://www.TheGuardian.com

It is indeed easy to think of this situation as a uniquely modern one, linked to the seemingly continual squeeze on budgets. Surely this wouldn’t have happened in the past, where well-run hospitals staffed by starchy matrons ran their (spotlessly clean) wards with military precision? In fact, if we peer back through time to hospitals even before the NHS, the situation can look remarkably familiar.

In 1772 Dr John Sharp, a philanthropist and trustee of the charity established by the late Lord Crewe, established a charitable infirmary in the impressive medieval castle at Bamburgh on the north east coast of England. Sharp’s brother William was a celebrated surgeon at St Bartholomew’s hospital in London and so the infirmary was able to benefit from the advice of a top medical man. As such it was equipped with the latest medical technologies, from mechanically operated hot and cold seawater baths to electrical machines and even an infirmary carriage to take invalid patients down to the beach for a restorative dip. In terms of many other institutions this was state of the art.

Dr Sharp

Many hospitals of the time relied on subscriptions – donations by wealthy benefactors – for their building and running. For patients to be admitted required a letter of recommendation from a subscriber. It was therefore very difficult just to turn up and ask for treatment. Bamburgh was different. Funded completely by the charity it had an open surgery – effectively an accident and emergency centre – on weekends, which meant that anyone, but especially the poor, could attend and be seen with relative ease. A quick note from a local clergyman confirming their status as a poor ‘object’ was sufficient. Unsurprisingly, though, this very accessibility meant that it was extremely popular.

In the first year of the charity, the numbers of patients through its doors was a modest 206. In 1775 this had more than doubled, and in 1781 it treated 1106. By the end of that decade, the infirmary was regularly treating more than 1500 patients every year, and was expending more than £250 every year on treatments and drugs. As well as outpatients, the infirmary contained around 20 beds. To give some perspective, these numbers were at times comparable with some of the ‘flagship’ hospitals in major Georgian towns such as Bath and Birmingham.

Bamburgh Castle

A staff consisting of a surgeon, two assistants and several ancillary staff, alone catered for the influx of patients. On any given attendance day between 60 and 100 patients could attend, and this put immense strain on both facilities and staff. In 1784 a freezing winter and ‘melancholy weather’ caused many poor people to perish, and admissions to rise dramatically. Outbreaks of infection also increased the pressure. The ‘malignant smallpox’ in neighbouring parishes was a constant threat to families, while the winter of 1782 also brought an outbreak of influenza at the neighbouring military barracks at Belford. This elicited a plea for infected soldiers to be treated at Bamburgh – a request declined by Dr Sharp for fear of infecting the rest of his patients.

The resident surgeon, Dr Cockayne, keenly felt these increasing pressures. Writing to Dr Sharp in the 1780s he noted both the continual increase in duties and the ‘vast number of patients admitted’ all of which added to his great worry and trouble. In the politest possible terms he asked for a rise in his wages, a request that led to him moving from ad hoc payments to a permanent wage.

The overcrowding at Bamburgh certainly chimes with the problems faced by the NHS on a daily basis. In simple terms there are simply too few staff to look after too many patients. The demands of an ever-changing medical environment increase the workload for staff, and these lead to further questions about pay and conditions. But it is interesting to consider that while Bamburgh infirmary faced the same socio-medical conditions as do hospitals today the question of funding was markedly different. Bamburgh was a well-funded institution. It had abundant money to spend on facilities and equipment and did so. And yet, the pressures of increasing numbers, and the unpredictability of admissions, still threatened to overwhelm it. Does this suggest that at least some problems are not simply reducible to finance?

Many suggestions have been put forward, from streamlining the allocation of beds to increasing the range of conditions treatable by pharmacists and GPs and even treating some conditions in the patient’s own homes. Whatever the answer it is clear that hospital overcrowding is not a new problem. Medical professionals in the past were all too familiar with the challenge of meeting increasing and uneven demand with limited resources.

The NHS Bill – an historical perspective.

At the very least, the NHS Bill is provoking lively and vigorous debate. Just the other week, the proposed legislation was referred to by Ed Milliband as “David Cameron’s Poll Tax”! Objections against the changes put forward are too many and too wide-ranging to explore in detail here. But, succinctly, the main bone of contention lies in the expansion of outsourcing of NHS services to private companies – in effect the privatisation (‘modernisation’ some prefer) of the NHS – and its possible effects upon the quality and cost of patient care in England. But just what is it about privatisation in the bill that worries people?

Privatisation is certainly a loaded term; for some it carries the implicit assumption that something will be lost in the process– that things could get worse for consumers rather than better. Are we even somehow resentful of the loss or degradation of our once-proud institutions like the post office and the NHS? Given that the latter only dates from 1948, this seems less likely although there is certainly a residual fondness for what has been, for the most part, a success story of public health.

It is worth considering the provision of healthcare in Britain in the past, and especially in terms of the question of private enterprise. Four hundred years ago, the concept of public healthcare simply did not exist – this was the original ‘medical marketplace’. How, then, did this manifest itself in the sickness experiences of our forebears? How did these proto-consumers of healthcare cope with this situation, and what types of medicine and practitioner were available to them? What, ultimately, can we learn from them?

The early modern period was characterised by a diversity of medical service providers. These included university-trained and licensed physicians who often catered for wealthy clients, and who were largely based in large towns and cities. Surgery was a separate branch of medicine, while apothecaries, although nominally banned from doing so, also provided medical advice as well as remedies and ingredients as they were more accessible and more affordable for many people. At a local level were an undifferentiated mass of medical practitioners, ranging from specialists, such as occulists, bonesetters and wart-charmers, to travelling ‘doctors’ who would claim to cure anything from toothache to the ‘itch’ for a few pennies. Even the local blacksmith could be called upon to knock out a rotten tooth.

This was a true consumer market with a massive variety of choices for the early modern patient.  Most people self-medicated. Some grew their own herbs, but many remedies and ingredients were available locally, even in rural villages. Surprising as it might sound, given our perceptions of contemporary living conditions, maintaining a healthy lifestyle was also important. People invested in healthy ‘regimens’ – daily steps to staying fit from fresh air and exercise to early modern equivalents of the tonic or health drink.

So if medicine in the early modern period was fully private, was it better? Clearly, conditions in the seventeenth-century differ markedly from that which the proposed NHS bill would create. In effect, this aims to drive down costs by putting more services out to tender giving the customer – the patient – access to care through different providers but still essentially free at the point of delivery. The early modern marketplace though, was patchy and uneven, with the availability of care and cure varyying widely geographically, demographically and economically. In terms of public health, for example, authorities might intervene to contain epidemic outbreaks, but this did not generally extend to treatment or tangible support for the afflicted.

The closest thing to ‘official’ medical support could be found in local parish poor relief funds. Here the parish might pay for the treatment of a sick parishioner, sometimes even paying for them to travel if the most appropriate specialist was not nearby. Friends or neighbours might also be employed by the parish to care for a sick person. This phenomenon actually resonates with current questions surrounding the boundaries of public care provision. In very recent times, for example, the language of deserving/undeserving has returned to political discussions about welfare provision – a terminology very familiar to our forebears. Could a similar scaling back as that mooted for things like housing or child benefit eventually affect the willingness of the state to fund certain lifestyle-related conditions, say through smoking, binge-drinking or overeating?

Turning the question around, are things actually better now? Free healthcare, massively more effective drugs and treatments and a similar diversity of practitioners suggest so, but stories about people extracting their own teeth as they could neither find an NHS dentist to take them on, nor afford private care, are reminders of the failures that can still exist. According to a recent survey in a popular newspaper, four in ten adults consider dental care a luxury, while the cost of prescriptions in England is set to rise in April 2012.

Nonetheless, it is worth noting that we already engage widely with a private medical market. Like our early modern counterparts, we are vigorous self-medicators. The first recourse for many of us is the chemist (the local apothecary) where we purchase over-the-counter palliatives, despite the option of a cheaper prescription. Many visit private practitioners such as medical herbalists, whether professionals or one of the increasing number of high-street outlets.  Also, the option to purchase bespoke treatment remains a way to bypass waiting lists and, dare I say it, get a ‘better’ service, perhaps in more comfortable surroundings. ‘Lifestyle’ in the form of health food and drinks, spa treatments and even private gym memberships attest to our continuing desire to stay healthy and try and fend off illness before it arrives – a sentiment very familiar to those in the seventeenth-century. This is a market worth billions.

So to raise the question again, what are we afraid of? There is already, as these examples suggest, a broad acceptance of the idea of private enterprise in medicine. Whether alternative therapies, such as high-street herbalists, should be banned hasn’t really been debated. Whether they should be available on the NHS has. The potential problem with the intervention of the private sector, and here the experience of the early modern period does bear relevance, is the potential risk of uneven quality of care. People across the country in the seventeenth century faced widely varying quality in medical provision, based not only on their ability to pay, but on the lack of centralised training or regulation. The NHS provides a safety net that people in the past simply didn’t have. The danger in throwing the doors open to different companies, say in parallel to the privatisation of rail services, is that quality will again vary regionally and demographically; rather than having consistent levels of services across the whole country, and for people at all levels of society, patients’ care will suffer. This is something that the government will have to think carefully about. Things were not always better in the past.