Christine Tongue: The price of a “free” trip to hospital

Christine Tongue

My friend Mandy is dreading tomorrow. She has to get to Dover for an outpatients appointment with a consultant she really likes and NHS staff who treat her thoughtfully.

So what’s to dread? Patient transport is what!

Transport provided by the NHS was long ago farmed out to private companies. While most of the staff are good and some excellent, they’re employed by organisations who have shareholders to satisfy and profits to make. Patient comfort can suffer.

You have to be ready really early as they may turn up at any time. When I last went to an appointment at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital (RNOH) in London, I was told to be ready from 10am for a 1pm appointment. But they turned up at 9am and were also expecting to pick up a patient in Margate whose appointment was 4.30pm!

She was lovely – thanks, Mary, for making the whole journey more  interesting – but she’d had to get dressed, make a sandwich and a flask of tea and prepare to leave her house in 15 minutes so that I could get to London by one.

Not easy when your legs are unpredictable, your back is aching and you live alone. After all, we’re only going to the RNOH because we have conditions too complicated for our local hospital.

You have to take food because it’s always a long day and if you want a hot drink, you need to take it with you. They’ve only just reopened the cafe at the RNOH, but carrying hot drinks is difficult with hands occupied by crutches or wheeling a wheelchair. And it shuts long before the clinics finish.

Cafe closing time

And then you have to plan for a gruelling journey home. It’s at least two and a half hours from London to Thanet, through the rush hour. No lavs and no refreshments!

I was finished by 2.30pm but I was told I had to wait for Mary. 4.30pm was stretching into much later as delays in seeing patients got worse.

View while waiting for transport

I looked so miserable waiting in the about-to-close cafe the nice girl clearing up brought me two huge flapjacks that were left over and a bag with handles to carry them  – if I was lucky enough to get away soon.

I love flapjacks!

Then my luck changed! Someone had cancelled, or got taken in – or worse – I didn’t enquire! A driver turned up calling my name and I was away! Sorry Mary if you’re reading this! Hope you’re OK.

I was home by 6.30pm, gasping for tea and the toilet.

Mandy has to see her consultant every couple of months – she has Motor Neurone disease  (MND) which has to be checked on frequently.

Remember what I said about lavs? Most of us, like Mandy, try not to drink much before a journey because we need accessible toilets and it takes time to find them and use them, so you might be late for your appointment.

It’s not a good idea to stop drinking. I form blood clots easily so I’m advised to drink a lot if I’m sitting still for long journeys or get too hot. But that has to be balanced against  the misery of being desperate for a wee in a London traffic jam when your legs don’t work.

Last time, Mandy waited five hours for transport, checking hourly and too tired to eat her sandwiches. MND makes you exhausted easily and unable to speak much, especially if you’ve had the stress of a long journey and dealing with various tests. So you can’t even ask for help.

She could get a taxi but to Dover and back from Thanet would be around £100 – who can afford that every two months?

And she says: “I’m determined to keep using the privatised patient transport and keep making complaints about their service on the feedback forms they send after every trip. Mainly because almost all my fellow users are old and frail and wouldn’t dream of complaining.

“It’s our taxes and our NHS! And private companies are making millions out of it!”

Doesn’t she deserve better?


  1. The title of this article really does highlight the entitlement expected.
    If must be infuriating not to be able to dictate the times to suit you for a service you get for nothing.
    The last time I took my Grandson to St Thomas’s it cost me a fortune and I’m more than happy to continue to cover the cost no matter how many more visits are needed.

  2. A taxi to and from London is over £300. Would you be able to pay that six times a year on a pension?

      • Oh and you would be grateful to wait for many hours for a service that on many occasions have been provided by poorly trained/paid/uncaring staff! I think not! Also I resent the patronising idea its”free” I spent 50 years paying my taxes, to have the privilege!of my hard earned taxes going to share holders

        • Rita – I am sure it’s not a poor service every time! I have paid taxes for exactly 61 years and am still grateful for services I receive., wether resented or not!!

    • Myself and my husband went to my appointment in London last week on the high speed service for £55 return total for both of us.
      Not always necessary to go by taxi.
      I am more than happy to pay for the transport as I’m getting excellent treatment in the form of hundreds of pounds worth of blood tests for free.

      • I used to.go by train but it’s too difficult at the moment for me. And for Mandy it’s just impossible. We have all paid our taxes so it’s not really a free NHS service.

      • Oh those halsion days of train trips, I am very envious you are able bodied enough to enjoy train trips

  3. Those drivers are more than willing to stop for toilets if asked. Absolute rubbish that you’re expected to dehydrate and risk blood clots.

  4. Since I had my spinal collapse three and a half years ago I have generally relied on G4S transport. Their staff are some great characters of a variety of ages and ethnicities. I worked it out that the last ten trips I had ten blokes and ten women as drivers/ escorts. The
    majority are a good group of people who are union members – either UNISON or GMB. I always wear my UNISON badge as it seems to help. The big worry is that the Health Trusts are cutting the monies paid to G4S for transport and the service is under a lot of stress. The incoming Labour Government could put more cash in and begin transferring the service inhouse – was that a pig that just flew past the window?

    • Scott- this lady is a turn off as soon as I see her name – my wife is disabled and we get on with life without continual moaning about every service we get free. We are also pensioners with small savings which are used as when required to make my wife’s life easier. We are not entitled to benefits!

  5. Society is not ready to acknowledge that disabled people have a right to quality services

    Those who do not use this service probably do not appreciate how basic it is or how many questions you have to answer before you are allowed to access it..

    Whilst the NHS runs a system of having specialisms in certain hospitals and moving patients around then a patient transport service is entirely necessary but woe betide us if we are treated too well

    Most people have no idea what it is like to be very old and somewhat weak, to be disabled or to be incapacitated by illness. Let’s hope they do not find out but they probably will .

    • My mother uses it regularly. She is also on water tablets, so needs the loo often… which is why there are plenty of stops during the journey if she requests them.

    • Thanks for understanding, Sharon! You’re right about the NHS – the patient has to travel to the specialists and what we need is specialists in our local hospitals. Most of the drivers and helpers are lovely but it shouldn’t be necessary for patients to have to travel a long way with serious medical conditions.

      • Let’s hope that the specialist gets to see this. Maybe when they realise the error of their ways. To save you any inconvenience in the future, they will contact you to arrange a home visit at a time and date to suit you better.

      • You cannot have a specialist for every condition in every hospital. As the name suggests they are specialists and centres of excellence have better outcomes.
        Patient transport is free as you say and a bit of inconvenience is a small price to pay for that service. As with public transport it doesn’t come exactly when you want it.

    • Spot on Sharon.
      To the lady in the article, the best place to stop for a loo is Moto Medway on the way back. I had to go up to London three times a week post transplant and the accessible loo is large enough for wheelchair users, even has a hoist, etc. You will need your radar key. My partner’s daughter calls it ‘Moto midwee’ cos it’s half way back 🙂

  6. More and more NHS services will be privatised in the near future. I think that there will be a 2 tier service. The younger generation will have to pay for some services whilst the older generation will receive the same services free. Once todays older generation have been depleted to zero. The next generation will be used to paying as they get older. Rather like state pensions. My children are paying for my pension as they also work in many cases they have to pay into a company pension as well as the state pension which by the time they retire will be coppers.
    I am just pleased that I encouraged my children to pay into a company pension as soon as they started work.

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