Doctor Who? Falling sick and getting well in London

Studying at Imperial College can seem like the perfect recipe for falling ill. One part stress, two parts exhaustion and liberal dashes of damp, pollen and air pollution mean that lots of students – myself included – have to deal with being sick in London at some point.

Thankfully, the NHS is around to offer quality care, but navigating it can be tricky, as I’ve since learned. For example, many people think that the NHS is free but that’s not exactly true. It’s free at the point of care. This means that only the services you access at NHS clinics or hospitals are free. If you’re given a prescription to fulfill at a pharmacy though, you’ll have to pay for the medicine.

I’ve had the fortune (or is that misfortune) of experiencing the various healthcare options here first hand, so here they are.


1. GP Clinics / Surgeries 

One of the first things Imperial will have you do when you start school is to register at a GP clinic. (They also call them “surgeries” over here, which until recently, I had thought described an action, not a place.) Most students will be registered at the Imperial College Health Centre and this is located in the area across the street from the Biz School. It’s very important that you’re registered as you can’t make appointments otherwise. It’s near impossible to walk in and see the doctor over here.

That said, you don’t need to take the default option, especially if you don’t spend that much time at South Kensington. Take your time to decide which clinic works best for you and then send in your registration. You can switch GPs later on but processing can take a long time.

Once you’re registered, appointments can be made online or by phone. Note that it can take two to three weeks before you see the doctor so it’s only for illnesses that can wait. If it’s a minor thing you need done (e.g. wound dressings), you can also walk in to see the GP Nurse. These are very qualified nurses, some of whom can also prescribe medicine. However, since it’s walk-in only, you’ll need to be prepared to wait. It really depends on how busy they are that morning and I’ve waited anywhere between 15 minutes and 1.5 hours.

One more thing to note, GPs can prescribe medicine but they don’t dispense it. Instead, you’ll get a prescription chit to fill at a pharmacy such as Boots or Superdrug.


2. Pharmacies 

Under the NHS, all drug prescriptions cost £8, regardless of the drug. This is obviously great if you’re getting relatively expensive medicines but not so much if all you need is some paracetamol, which can cost £0.25 over the counter. Luckily, pharmacists will usually advise you on the most economical option.

Pharmacists in the UK are also the most highly qualified ones I’ve encountered. Back in Singapore, pharmacists are mainly restricted to dispensing drugs – a practice I disagree with – but here, they often act like community healthcare professionals. They can even deliver vaccination shots! If you’re just starting to experience symptoms, I recommend going to see your nearest pharmacist first. If it’s not something they can handle, then you can go see your GP.


3. Hospitals

Personally, I really don’t like going to hospitals. I feel like it means something really serious is happening. However, with the pace of healthcare in the UK, you’ll need to go to the A&E if you have something that can’t really wait. I learned that when I got a hair follicle infection and my leg started swelling up like a balloon. It wasn’t serious but I couldn’t wait two weeks to go to a GP either, so I went to the St Mary’s Hospital A&E department.

If there’s one piece of advice I’d give to any one going to a London hospital, it’s this: Be patient. There will be a lot of waiting and being frustrated is just going to make it harder. Here’s a quick breakdown of what I went through.

  1. Registration (5 minutes)
  2. Nurse triage (10 minutes wait)
  3. Doctor triage (10 minutes wait)
  4. Sent to UCC (1 hour wait)
  5. Sent to Ambulatory Emergency Care unit (AED) => this is where they send patients with more serious conditions but don’t need a bed
  6. Blood test (2 hour wait)
  7. Test results and consultation (4 hour wait, so I went home to have dinner and came back)
  8. Antibiotics infusion (1.5 hour wait after I came back)
  9. Minor surgery to cut out the abscess (2 hour wait)

Yes, I waited more than 10 hours just to get an abscess lanced. But throughout, I also saw just how busy and harried the hospital staff were. At first, I was frustrated about all the waiting for my surgery, then I found out that the doctor was delayed because he’d just come out of the operating theatre. Despite starting work on me at 11 pm, he was all smiles, friendly yet professional. I learned my lesson there.

And perhaps the best part about studying at the St Mary’s campus is that I bumped into him a few weeks later in the library and got to thank him again.


4. Telehealth

To ease the burden on GPs and hospitals, the NHS has rolled out a couple of apps that allow you to see the doctor over your phone. The first is GP At Hand / Babylon, where you can see a doctor over video consultation in minutes. If needed, the video doc can also refer you to a physical clinic, which you can then pop into on the same or next day. My main experience with this is of the chatbot function. My wife had severely cut her thumb and I needed to know what to do to stop the bleeding and prevent infection. The app gave me the advice I needed and also offered to have a nurse give me a call on the next working day, which I declined. However, one key issue with GP At Hand is that you need to transfer your GP practice registration to it. This can take a while so it’s best if you do it before you fall sick.

The other telehealth option out there is NHS 111. This is basically an app version of the NHS 111 hotline. If you’re not familiar, dialing 111 gets you a phone consultation with a trained NHS adviser for urgent medical issues. I called it when I had a splitting tension headache and the consultation I had was pleasant, informative and also non-judgmental. To supplement the hotline, the NHS 111 app is now being piloted with a chatbot and will save you some phone waiting time. I’ve yet to try it but I’d love to hear your opinions about it!

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