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The doctor who gave up her career to fight NHS privatisation

Founder of campaign group EveryDoctor, Dr Julia Patterson has devoted her career to defending the NHS from attack. Up next? The real threat of privatisation.

Dr Julia Patterson has been threatened more than once by people saying they would refer her to the General Medical Council for “being a troublemaker.” Indeed, she may be one of the loudest doctors on Twitter, never shying away from calling out gaslighting or abuse directed at her or fellow doctors.

This is because doctors, at least traditionally it seems, are not supposed to be political, and many don’t want to be seen as being critical of the cherished NHS. 

Criticism is too often interpreted as personal rather than systemic and it seems that the public would prefer that medicine exists outside of the realm of politics – because science is neutral, right?

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But for Patterson, a qualified doctor and psychiatrist, the politicisation of the NHS is not something slightly unsavory that can be swept under the rug – it’s the greatest threat faced by the 73-year-old institution. 

The weaponisation of the health service as a bargaining tool, she says, threatens the very core of the job that NHS doctors are hired to do – provide the best possible care to every patient without consideration of personal wealth or money. 

It was the junior doctors disputes over working hours in 2015 that first thrust Patterson into the muddied world of policy. 

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“It woke up a lot of doctors to the idea that the NHS has been politicised,” she recalls. 

There were accusations levelled at the NHS and junior doctors about patient safety that doctors didn’t feel were fair or substantiated. Yet they didn’t know how to defend themselves or organise a response because “none of us had any experience in campaigning, essentially.” 

EveryDoctor was born from a Facebook group – The Political Mess, a play on the ‘The doctors mess’ where medics would go to rest before being called back to the wards. It was set up by Patterson as a place where doctors from any background or speciality could advocate for a better NHS, share petitions and collaborate on campaigns. 

The campaigning organisation now has four full time staff members, and one part time, led by Patterson, who has given up her medical licence to devote herself fully to the cause. 

Though EveryDoctor wasn’t set up with a single goal in mind, the threat of NHS privatisation via the Health and Care Bill has dominated its agenda in recent months. 

The bill would allow private companies to sit on the boards of local Integrated Care Systems (ICSs), which would give them a say over the provision of services that are, and are not, provided to patients. 

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Under the current system, doctors are shielded from the money factor, which means it is not considered  when delivering care – “doctors in the UK are really, really privileged because the only concern you have when you see your patient is what they need.”  

But she fears that once money is added into the equation, “even if a doctor is trying to be fair they will have pressures put upon them… and a lot of people will lose out.”

An inquiry has recently been launched into the NHS staffing crisis, which has seen patients waiting outside hospitals in ambulances for up to 14 hours as hospitals struggle to staff wards. 

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Underfunding has led to a host of issues plaguing the NHS, which in turn have led to staff leaving the profession either for private practices, or a new career, she says. 

“I believe the government has intentionally underfunded the NHS to pave the way for privatisation… the NHS is seen as a broken system and that allows people in their minds to think that perhaps there is another way. And so when privatisation is brought up, some patients will say ‘well, perhaps that is the best thing because clearly it’s not working.’”

Despite the bill passing its third reading in the House of Commons, meaning it’ll head to the Lords next, Patterson sees the fight as far from over.

This is a government that “does respond to public pressure, they do make U-turns,” she says. 

Soon after the news broke of the bill’s passing, Patterson and her team rallied, announcing a crowdfunding campaign with a £100,000 goal to build a movement deffending the NHS. They hope to build a digital map to connect individuals, organisations and businesses to collaborate and share information.

The map will look to highlight how much of the NHS is already privatised by creating a localised picture of which services within local hospitals have been privatised, how many of the GP surgeries have been taken over by private companies, and even which private companies will sit on the boards of their local ICS. 

Creeping privatisation isn’t new, EveryDoctor warns. Up to 11 per cent of the NHS budget already goes to private companies, and they’re determined to draw the line there. 

A U-turn on the Health and Care Bill wouldn’t be the first win for the organisation. 

The government faced massive backlash after it announced in December 2020 that healthcare workers would not be first in line to receive the vaccine. 

“The same day we ran an MP briefing, the policy changed, and suddenly they were given first dose vaccines for healthcare workers,” said Patterson, giving EveryDoctor credit for the government’s U-turn

Through EveryDoctor Patterson has galvanized a movement to fight NHS privatisation tooth and nail, with the biggest battle yet to come.

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