Dr Philippa Whitford, MP – Standing for the NHS

When Dr Philippa Whitford saw what was happening to the NHS, she faced one of the toughest decisions of her life. Should she continue to treat the patients in the job she loved as a breast surgeon? Or should she take up a calling that was every bit as challenging: become an MP?

Choosing to stand as an MP, at the age of 56 and after 33 years as a doctor, was difficult enough. But when Philippa was returned to parliament as the SNP MP for Central Ayrshire having achieved a massive 34% swing in her constituency against the former Labour MP, a far more difficult task awaited her: posting her resignation from her job as a consultant breast cancer surgeon at Crosshouse Hospital in Kilmarnock.

‘I really dragged my feet to the post-box and my hand hardly wanted to put the letters in. I’ve always enjoyed what I do as a breast surgeon. I do feel sad leaving the patients but I felt it had to be done – if not me, then who? That was very much how the decision got made, in the end.

‘Obviously I work in the Scottish NHS which is devolved. In Scotland we got rid of hospital trusts and went back to being a unified, public NHS which allowed us to cooperate across the country to improve safety and quality.

‘It’s really important to raise the awareness of people in England that their NHS is being franchised out to private companies. To people in Britain the NHS is very special but unless you are actually a patient or a carer, you swan along not that conscious of the NHS for years at a time until you actually need it. People in England who are not interacting with it might think it looks like it always did, they are not aware of the changes that are happening underneath. Whereas people who are interacting with it will be beginning to become aware of problems: they are waiting longer or they are being asked to pay for things they didn’t pay for before. But that’s all part of this media narrative that “it just can’t be done – the NHS is just appallingly expensive and inefficient you can’t do it that way any more”. But that simply isn’t true.

‘It’s actually one of the most efficient way of delivering health care. This is an ideological decision by the coalition and now the Conservatives. When the Conservatives said what they were going to do at the time of Andrew Lansley, I thought “surely not, that doesn’t make any sense at all”. The more I was seeing about their plans the more incredulous I felt. I think every group, every doctor has a duty try and get people to understand.’

Political realities

Philippa believes that the best way to stop what is happening to the NHS in England is to involve the public:

‘Obviously we can’t out-vote the government but if we can get things aired, and get the public more aware of what’s happening maybe we can get a bit more http://www.eta-i.org/valium.html discussion and protest about this.

‘What we can do is raise or challenge issues in the House. I am hoping to get on the Health Select Committee and have the chance to do some of the things in more detail there.

‘I’m the shadow health spokesperson for the SNP. As the third party that does give us the opportunity to have a voice. We’re an opposition party so we can’t turn things around. But we can raise them and we can air them. There may be people in the Conservative Party who are not totally comfortable with what they are doing to the NHS. During the election the Conservatives kept very quiet about what their plans are for the NHS, other than “we’re going to give it more money and we’re going to let Manchester run it’s own NHS”. But what money are they going to give up front, and how are they going to devolve services and run them?’

Philippa is now learning how to adjust to Westminster, and to living and working at opposite ends of the country:

‘Westminster is just a whirlwind at the moment. You keep thinking that “it will be over in a few weeks and I can get back to normal”, and then you wake up and realise this is now your life! It’s a bit weird to be making my maiden speech from the front bench, but that’s the position a few of us are in. There’s a lot to get up to speed with apart from health: immigration, benefits, and so on.

‘My biggest fear is whether I can make a difference. That will only be seen as we get used to the mechanisms of the place, for the Westminster end of the job and at the constituency end too. You’ve to employ your own staff and find office space here in the constituency at the same time you’re trying to find somewhere to live in London. We fly to London, but even so it can take 6 hours door to door if the traffic is bad: I was set to call a by-election by the time I got home last Thursday!

What can DFNHS do?

‘I think the new name – Doctors for the NHS – is good, and will hopefully attract some of the younger doctors. You need to use social media more*. Regionalising meetings will help. You have to reach out, so it becomes a UK-wide group who can learn from each other to try and protect the NHS we all believe in.

‘There are lots of groups who are wanting to fight things like the privatisation – trying to make sure we’re joined up is important. I would say arrange a meeting further north – Manchester or somewhere like that – and invite the various anti-privatisation groups and ask how much can we work together. ‘

We have a duty of care to the NHS itself as well as our patients.

*DFNHS has a social media presence which is building encouragingly: join us on Twitter (@Doctors4NHS).

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