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British politics

What my daughter’s wheelchair taught me about the NHS

A surgical robot working on a dummy. Getty

“Where there is great waste, shortage follows,” says Dominic Lawson in the Daily Mail. Nowhere is this truer than in the NHS. In 2016, my daughter Domenica, who has Down’s syndrome, fractured her leg. She came home from hospital in a “light and easy-to-fold” wheelchair, presumably worth thousands of pounds. But when I called to ask about returning it, no one was interested. I eventually packed it into my car and abandoned it in a hospital corridor. When we returned to the hospital years later because Domenica had broken her ankle, there were no wheelchairs available. I couldn’t help but wonder how many had been flogged on eBay since our last visit. I ended up renting one from the Red Cross, where the assistant told me: “This happens all the time.”

Incidents like that prove that what the NHS really needs is better “data management”. If it had hi-tech systems “akin to those in large private sector businesses, such as supermarkets,” the results would be transformative. Instead, junior doctors spend 45% of their time on simple admin tasks that could easily be automated. The same is true for all sorts of tech: Cambridge’s Addenbrooke’s Hospital has introduced “robotic surgery” that allows doctors to make “more precise cuts”, meaning patients can be discharged within 24 hours rather than after five days. As a result, the backlog of people waiting more than two years for an operation has plummeted from 170 a year ago to just one today. The NHS won’t be fixed by pumping more cash into it, but by creating “better systems” to spend the money it has more efficiently.