No time for the golf course

Observations on doctors

Maybe I'm paranoid, but I've no-ticed a profoundly anti-doctor sentiment gaining ground of late: not among the general public, which on the whole retains its respect for and trust in doctors (a fact borne out by all the surveys), but among the intelligentsia - literary folk, journalists and so on. Perhaps because their own crafts are held in such low public esteem, they believe that doctors should be taken down a peg or two.

There are two main charges against doctors, particularly hospital consultants: the first that they are on the golf course most of the time, and the second that they are making a fortune from their private practices. When you come to think of it, these two complaints are not strictly compatible. Doctors are often quite clever people, but even they have not mastered the art of being in two places at once, and the only way of making money out of private practice is to work very hard at it. Doctors are not paid for a birdie three or an eagle two.

The primordial antagonism towards doctors on the part of journalists and the literati is not fully rational: it is a little like anti-Semitism. Just as Jews, to the anti-Semite, are simultaneously capitalist plutocrats and communist agitators, so doctors are incredibly lazy but ferociously avaricious. The golf course is to anti-doctor sentiment what ritual murder is to the anti-Semite: a myth to keep a hatred warm.

I am far from suggesting that all doctors are exemplary: how could any body of 100,000 men and women (the number in Britain) be that? But, taken all in all, doctors as a group are better than many groups of comparable size.

I am 53 years old, and beginning to feel my age. I am on duty one night in five, and have been for years. I do no private practice, apart from some medico-legal work. I never refuse to get up in the middle of the night to see a patient, and if I do get up, I still have to go to work the following morning, however tired I may feel. My pay is adequate, and I do not complain about it: my wife, who is also a doctor, and I live well but not extravagantly. Certainly, many people with less strenuous lives earn much more than we do. As far as I am aware, I have not lost a single patient through carelessness in all those years.

I am not asking for praise or admiration: what I do is only what thousands of other doctors in this country do. To be told that I belong to an avaricious, power-mad, privileged and lazy cabal by people whose prerogatives are distinctly those of the harlot sticks a little in my throat. I do not claim to love humanity, but I do get up at 3am if I am required to do so. It is far, far easier and less demanding to write an editorial; I know because I have done both. Moreover, writing editorials pays better.

Unfortunately, this anti-doctor sentiment coheres with governments' increasing fear of professions that escape their complete control. Disproportionate criticism of the medical profession by journalists and authors serves governments' goal of a totally managed society. But if the literati think they will forever avoid the consequences of this trend, they are sadly mistaken.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Blair was told it would be illegal to occupy Iraq