Anna Sigston has been working in emergency care and A&E as part of the sixth and final year of her medicine degree, but has said the horrors of the hospital crisis have made her question her future in the profession. Doctors have said that 500 people are dying every week as a result of delayed care, while stories of severely ill patients stuck at home or in ambulances have shocked the nation.
“It’s heartbreaking because I’ve spent so much of my life on this, but I don’t even know if I want to do it anymore,” the 23-year-old told NationalWorld. “It’s difficult when you’re fighting so hard for a system that you believe in, but it feels like no one’s really listening. Because those in power are refusing to accept the enormity of the situation.”
She said that so many of the stories she has seen and heard have been heartbreaking: “A patient being given CPR in the car park because there wasn’t space in the hospital. Bad news being delivered in corridors. Intimate exams being carried out in cupboards.
“Patients deserve more, and families deserve more. It’s emotionally exhausting because we don’t want to be giving substandard care. I see patients and I’m not able to fully assess them, so I have this constant fear of something slipping through the cracks. But I’m at a loss because I don’t have the power to fix it.”
Anna’s words come as the NHS faces a crisis which healthcare workers have said is “worse than any they have seen before”. There are critical staff shortages, dangerous waiting times in A&E, and even trouble getting an ambulance - all of which have combined to cause substandard conditions for patients.
The Doctors Association UK, where Anna works as medical student lead, even warned Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in an open letter that the crisis is causing unnecessary deaths - with up to 500 people dying every week as a result of delayed emergency care - as they urged him to recall Parliament. To add to the recent chaos, nurses and paramedics walked out for the first time in history last month, striking over pay and patient safety.
Anna explained that the toll the situation is having on healthcare workers is huge. “Speaking for medical students, we’re already horrifically burnt out because we’re doing unpaid 32 hour week placements, on top of studies and part-time jobs to afford living,” she said. “So adding this on top - everything is so much more emotionally exhausting, so much more stressful.”
Other healthcare workers have given similar testimonies. In the Doctors Association UK’s open letter, one intensive care registrar said he had witnessed a patient “collapse” in the hospital waiting room and later die after being there for eight hours. “If the waiting time had been less, he’d have probably survived,” they said.
Meanwhile, an A&E doctor told of how patients are being “kicked out” of cubicle spaces so a more critical patient can take their place - something they did recently just so a “patient could die anywhere other than a corridor.”
Some of the things which Anna - and the Doctors Association UK - would like to see changed include more funding and a bigger focus on social care. Anna explained that in the hospitals near her, 50% of the beds are taken up by patients who are fit to go home but can’t because of insufficient social care. “The backlog is insane,” she commented.
The medical student added that a focus on staff would make a significant difference too. She explained: “There needs to be a focus on staff retention and recruitment - and on morale. There are so many small things they could do - even something as small as free hospital parking would make a huge difference to staff morale.
“But they need to do it quickly - the Prime Minister needs to address this crisis now. If this isn’t a national emergency, I don’t know what is.”
In his first address of 2023, the Prime Minister vowed to cut NHS waiting lists “so people can get the care they need more quickly”. He said he was aware that the public is “anxious” about what is going on in the NHS - but promised the government had taken “urgent action”.
His spokesperson also recently told reporters that the NHS has “the funding it needs” to cope with the crisis, sparking fury among healthcare workers. Dr Vishal Sharma, the chair of the consultants committee at the British Medical Association, said: “For staff working in the NHS or any patients desperately trying to access care, Number 10’s refusal to admit that the NHS is in crisis will seem simply delusional.”