My mum was so desperate for medical care that she went private. Then came the bill ...

<span>Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA</span>
Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

What price would you put on a wee? After three months of having such a debilitating urinary infection that she couldn’t leave the house, my 73-year-old mum recently did something controversial – well, controversial in our leftwing, public-sector, cheese-and-pickle branch of the family. She went to see a private urologist.

I don’t approve of private healthcare, in the way I don’t approve of private education or private jets. In a taxpaying democracy, having a service available only to people with money is divisive, unfair and unethical. To have one for something as fundamental as blood, bones, breath and the very ability to live is gross. Hideous. Extremely uncool, even.

However – and feel free to call me a hypocrite – I also wanted my mum to be able to buy courgettes and go to the library. She had been seen twice by an NHS GP and tried a few courses of antibiotics, none of which had worked. The pain had become so bad that she was about to go to A&E when I encouraged her to spend the £300 she was quoted for a private appointment.

She was seen by a doctor who also works in the NHS. She was prescribed antibiotics that would, hopefully, finally clear the infection. Only, when my mum got to the pharmacy and handed over the prescription, she was informed that these pills cost – wait for it – £1,000. For a two-week course. A cool grand to clear a urinary infection.

In 2022, 272,000 people – a record number – paid for an operation or diagnostic procedure at a private hospital

Swallowing her pride (to say nothing of crossing her legs), Mum had to go back to the private urologist and explain that she couldn’t afford the treatment. After all, who can afford £1,000 for two weeks’ worth of antibiotics?

This debacle is the most stark insight my family has had into the price of losing the NHS. When I thought about private healthcare, I tended to think of private hospital rooms with televisions and short waiting times. I imagined peach-coloured walls, Nespresso machines and patients with drivers. I had engaged with private medicine, tangentially, when I visited an IVF clinic on an industrial estate outside Bath with a friend, but my lasting memory of that place was of purple suede furniture and a vaporiser that squirted scented steam into the room like a plastic volcano. When I hear “private healthcare”, I don’t think about dropping the price of a shiny new computer on a bad case of cystitis. I bet you don’t, either.

According to an article in this newspaper, “272,000 people used their own funds to cover the cost of having an operation or diagnostic procedure at a private hospital” in 2022. That is a record number – and a shameful number. But it isn’t just a number; it’s a bitter indictment of this government, which has strategically and intentionally ripped the NHS to shreds, comfortable in the knowledge that, as thousands of other people suffer and die, its members and their friends will still be able to pay for healthcare. It makes my blood boil.

In my younger years, I blamed the people who used or worked in private healthcare. I would complain about the burden they put on the NHS by scooping up the easy treatments and leaving the big things to the public purse; I would make unkind comments about them shirking tax in order to spend their money on their own operations. I probably said disparaging things about vanity and the smell of fresh paint. But I can see now, from the list of most commonly undertaken private procedures – cataracts, new hips, colonoscopies, chemotherapy, tests for bowel cancer – that most of them are probably just like my mum: older people who want to get treatment more quickly because without it they are unable to leave the house. And probably, like my mum, many of them can’t afford to spend more than a month’s rent on a single prescription.

Luckily, the doctor understood and changed the prescription to something more affordable. The infection cleared, eventually. At the time of writing, my mum is at a life-drawing class, wearing nothing more absorbent than a pair of corduroy trousers.

• Nell Frizzell is the author of Holding the Baby: Milk, Sweat and Tears from the Frontline of Motherhood

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