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Medicine: Two Wigs & Lots of Teeth

3 minute read

Aneurin (“Nye”) Bevan, Britain’s Health Minister, was a bit embarrassed last week by the public’s enthusiasm for government-financed doctoring. He announced: “It seems that an extraordinary proportion of the population has bad sight . . . The health service will fail unless the people use it intelligently, sparingly and prudently.”

Oysters & Champagne. How were the British faring with the National Health Service Act, now almost four months old?

Some patients were running doctors ragged with petty requests. (“I always use Carter’s Little Liver Pills. Please can I have a chit so that I can get them free?”) A few diehard doctors, still hoping that the act would be a bust, were blandly prescribing champagne, oysters, whiskey and rum for their patients—at government expense. Some patients were unreasonable. One physician, forced to cancel his evening office hours because of a difficult, ten-hour delivery, was greeted at his surgery next morning by four threatening hoodlums; he was now a servant of the people, they told him, and he had no right to be away during regular working hours. Some doctors were unpleasant. One, called five miles on a case, berated and lectured the parents of a sick child: “This is a fine thing, all this way in my car on the free service.”

The British (about 95% have signed up) were taking advantage of their chance to get medical care and let the government pay the doctor’s bill. A check in Birmingham showed that 97% of the people tested actually needed glasses, and manufacturers of frames are two months behind in their orders. Two thirds of Britain’s dentists have signed up under the act; many are swamped with drill-and-forceps work on the notoriously bad British teeth.

The act has created its own legends. A puzzle still unsolved by the Ministry of Health: the case of the dentist who pulled two of his own teeth, and sent in a claim for payment to himself. Last week* a butcher in Dudley, Worcestershire, asked for three pairs of eyeglasses: one for reading, one for looking at far-off things, one for chopping meat. He got them. In Cambridge, an elderly woman, bald since the age of six, asked for a wig. Ruled S. W. Davis, the pensions officer: “She will be provided with two wigs, as one occasionally has to be cleaned.”

Pounds & Pence. What is it all going to cost? Britain is now paying general practitioners a total of £45,000,000 ($180,000,000) a year. The prewar total income of G.P.s: £28,000,000 ($112,000,000). But general practitioners are only part of John Bull’s medical bill. Meanwhile, the Health Ministry and those who oppose socialized medicine are busy hurling statistics at each other. The British Dental Association claims that the plan is costing the government seven times the estimated cost for dentistry. Not so, says Bevan: the estimated £7,000,000 ($28,000,000) will nicely cover the first nine months.

Many doctors who vainly fought the act through the British Medical Association (TIME, March 1) remain unconvinced. The Labor Government was smart, grumbles the B.M.A. unofficially, in starting the service in July, when sickness rates are lowest: just wait until winter epidemics start jamming the doctors’ already crowded offices.

*Also last week the act paid for delivery of its first quadruplets.

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