Thursday, 29 November 2007

We don’t do symptoms

I had this itch in my ear, you see. Not really life-threatening but annoying and perhaps a bit worrying. Had an ear-wig burrowed inside, as earwigs are alleged to do, and laid eggs which, when hatched, would come marching out in serried ranks in the middle of the night as fully-grown forficula auricularia*? Even learning, on looking up the things in Wikipedia, that “Interestingly, the male of the species has two identical, fully-functional and independently-operable penises” did not reconcile me to the prospect, and anyway I didn’t think the information was all that interesting, except perhaps to female earwigs.

So I resolved to get help. Some internet sources identified the problem as swimmer’s ear, and the American Academy of Family Physicians went into much detail, recommending a 2% solution of acetic acid; as I had never done any swimming, and didn’t much like the idea of filling my ear up with vinegar, I felt I should look elsewhere for advice, and sent an email to NHS Direct.

I suppose this service seemed like a good idea at the time it was set up, saving busy doctors from having to listen to trivial complaints by providing medical advice on the telephone or through a website, but it seems unlikely to be serving much purpose. I have never heard of anyone who has found it useful, and my own experience of it was not gratifying: I simply said that my hearing was OK and that I had no earache and asked “ why does my ear itch?”, and got back a standard letter saying, in effect, “This is not the sort of question we can deal with”.

This seemed remarkably feeble of them, as in their blurb they invite you to “…Get an assessment of what your current symptoms may be the cause of..**”. I suppose, with over two million enquiries a month, they simply cannot give specific advice to many; one imagines a call centre where hundreds of teenagers sit at consoles with a array of buttons to press from which they can choose a standard pre-recorded message or an email (in any one of the twelve languages they say they use), like the one I had, or others saying Don’t worry, it’ll get better on its own, or Call an ambulance NOW, or Don’t scratch it, leave it ALONE, or even just Dear Sir, You have the pox, Yours faithfully.

In my case they could have said Sounds like a minor infection, see your GP and he will prescribe something which will cure it in a trice. Anyway, I did, he did, and it did.

But of course this would have meant a bit of typing; easier to press the button to send the We don’t want to know email.

All this has reminded me of a very old Jewish joke, but I’ll keep that for another time.

* forficulae auriculariae?
**Get an assessment of what your current symptoms may be the cause of...” This is disgracefully careless writing: symptoms don’t cause anything: they meant to say “..may be caused by”.

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