Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Bright, vital: This symbol of an NHS we must forever cherish

Wivenhoe Medical Centre. Picture: WIVENHOE MEDICAL CENTRE

Wivenhoe Medical Centre. Picture: WIVENHOE MEDICAL CENTRE - Credit: Archant

BBC Radio Four is airing a dramatisation of AJ Cronin’s The Citadel, a fictional account of a young doctor working for a mining community in 1920s South Wales, writes Martin Newell.

Based on Cronin’s experiences as a GP in Tredegar, the book is credited with inspiring a blueprint for the NHS, which was launched only a decade after its 1937 publication.

On a pleasant October morning at Wivenhoe’s brand new medical centre, 80 years after Cronin’s book came out, I am greeted by its smiling practice manager, Zoë Cronin: a namesake, rather than a relative, of The Citadel’s author.

Wivenhoe Medical Centre, with almost two decades between its conception and realisation, is a big deal.

The town’s population has grown by almost a third in recent decades. It outgrew its former building, hardly more than a bungalow with an extension, some time ago.

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The new centre, in the heart of the old Wivenhoe and housed in the town’s Victorian former school, is sorely needed.

Two of Wivenhoe’s three GPs, Doctors Carr and Cope, have been joined for the opening by Bernard Jenkin MP. The mood is breezy, as it should be.

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For this is a joyous occasion. The centre, which will minister to the needs of some 8,500 patients, is exactly the kind of good news story the NHS needs.

Although the exterior of the building is largely unchanged, the gleaming modern interior with its light corridors and spacious consultation rooms is a vast improvement on its predecessor. The patients attending this morning’s opening are suitably impressed, greeting what they see with polite oohs and aahs.

But there’s a well-planned human infrastructure in place here too. In addition to the three GPs, there are two matrons, three nurses, two assistants and a pharmacist, along with Zoë Cronin and the reception team.

As I may have mentioned in previous columns, up until the age of 60 I rarely troubled the NHS. Four years ago, however, when I finally succumbed, the NHS was there for me. The NHS does work. No-one denies it’s creaking under the weight of what it must now accomplish, but it’s still holding.

It may be frayed around the edges, but, as a general rule, should you fall, nearly always they’ll catch you.

Of all the specialisations in medicine, general practice must be one of the more demanding. My own GP, during the course of one morning, might have to deal with a retired shipyard worker, a young academic, a new baby or, worst of all, me – an old baby.

A GP with an accretion of some years’ experience will therefore be a major asset to a town such as our own. Difficulties with both recruitment and retention of GPs, allied with a demographic bulge of over-65-year-olds, presents a formidable and growing challenge.

What can the public do to help? The usual: cut the drinking, stop smoking and take more exercise. Not exactly rocket science – but it does actually work.

Our GPs do their bit but we must do ours; even if only making sure we keep our appointments. The Wivenhoe practice posts monthly figures of missed appointments on their door. When I enquired, Dr Cope confirmed there’d been 76 in the last month alone.

Wivenhoe’s new medical centre is something of a dream come true. For Bernard Jenkin MP this is a jubilant occasion. He pointed out, however, with a small hint of frustration, one sensed, that debate about the location of the centre may have delayed its actualisation.

It’s true Wivenhoe is a town rarely short of expert opinions. If, for instance, you believed the experts on the local internet forum, you might be forgiven for concluding the centre’s chief priorities weren’t about medicine at all but parking, vehicular access and traffic congestion.

As Dr Cope patiently tells me, however, the old centre didn’t actually have any parking spaces, whereas the new one has 24, in addition to bike-racks.

My view is that patients living less than a mile away, who aren’t too infirm, might consider walking to the new centre, rather than driving up to the door.

If anybody is still feeling inadequately served by our health care providers, or doctors as we once called them, may I recommend reading The Citadel? Should that prove too strenuous, why not put things into perspective by comparing US health care policies to NHS ones?

Or maybe glance at news footage about health and welfare in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Now be of good cheer. We are all very lucky.

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