What’s wrong with British Hospitals? Gerda Cohen. Penguin Books

They had taken upon their shoulders the mantles of gods. They had restored lost limbs; stopped holes in hearts; melted cancers away with radioactive bombs; they had abolished diseases which had scourged mankind for centuries and wrought miracle cures with their wonder drugs.

As they stalked through their mausolea, gigantic hospital wards, cleaned and tidied against their arrival, their cases folded neatly into beds by votaries, nurses dressed in curious uniforms, hybrids between nuns and amahs; a rumble of complaint reached their ears. The cases were dissatisfied. The gods had forgotten they were men and women.

Gerda Cohen has presented a very typical collection. By the time an observant and sensitive medical student has completed his clinical course he should be able to present some examples every bit as horrific. I recall how my introductory class in clinical medicine was turned loose to take their first histories and make their first clinical examinations on the radiotherapy ward, many of whose patients were incurably ill. When I complained that this strident brutality was evidence of professional callousness; (we even had a competition, the introductory course prize, part of which was judged on the best case history taken there) I was told that ‘all the other clinical material in the hospital is used by someone else.’ If there could be any cavil with the writer it would be that her analysis of the causes for the doctor’s callousness has not gone far enough. She is right to dismiss the prevarications of shortage of staff and money (although these are great) since these faults are even to be found at the richer teaching hospitals, and she has noted the exceptional hierarchical structure of the medical profession and the stultifying effect that this has had; unfortunately she has not had the space to analyse how it has been that the introduction of the nhs, intended to mobilize the doctors in the entire service of the patient, has given the medical dinosaur wider and more secure clinical fields to graze on, and hardly a thought for their patients’ feelings.

Martin Rossdale