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Alternatives to the waiting room

By Lucy Dunn

With the NHS stretched a little thin, our Deputy News Editor and medical student Lucy Dunn offers some alternative resources for health-related-help. 

As the year struggles on, the headlines get bleaker: “Stretched to the limit”, “Pressure on the frontline ‘relentless’” and “Surge leaves key hospital services in crisis”. Whilst we may try to ignore it, it isn’t always ideal to keep batting away reality. With priority deservingly given to cancer patients and others with more complex health challenges, those of us with less life-threatening conditions, or no diagnosis at all, find ourselves at the bottom of the pile. Of course, we should not expect any different, but just as more serious ailments haven’t chivalrously resolved during the pandemic, neither have “smaller” problems. 

The student demographic tends to be pretty healthy – generally speaking – but with GP practices and sexual health clinics suspending their own routine services and check-ups, never mind those notoriously long mental health waiting lists, where can we turn to in times of need? And at what cost? From the perspective of a medical student with a reasonable understanding and knowledge of the healthcare system, I’ve tried to be mindful of the alleyways I would venture down first before turning to the healthcare high street. 

Where else to begin than with the complexity that is the worldwide web? With its minefield of resources, knowing which ones to trust is half the battle. My go-to’s include the NHS website and, both of which feature self-explanatory guides that quickly take you through symptoms, associated conditions, and the best way to manage them. Of course, whilst these whilst these references are encyclopaedic in their range of info, they truly are a hypochondriac’s worst nightmare.

It’s weird, isn’t it: as soon as you start reading through lists of symptoms, you begin to experience every single one? Covid-19 has been a fun test for that; every time I get a croaky throat I’m up next to candles: “Oh shit, this definitely smells less vanilla than it used to…” or munching raw garlic experimentally: “Can I actually taste this or is it just my subconscious telling me it’s gross?” One anticlimactic Covid-19 test later and… it was just a croaky throat.

Pre-2020, the GP was an accessible local resource; but now appointments are increasingly harder to come by. A handy tip to find perspective is googling the risk factors or “epidemiology” of the condition – Mayo Clinic comes in handy here – which can tell you who is more at risk of developing whatever condition you are concerned about. Had I done this in second year, perhaps it’d have taken less time to realise that, with my lacking history of autoimmune disease, my thyroid was in fact not malfunctioning: my flat was simply too cold.

Perhaps your problem is pretty run-of-the-mill, so the websites simply recommend some over-the-counter TLC. Resource numéro deux: la pharmacie locale. Whilst pharmacists are under similar pressure with sorting medications for GP patients, pharmacy assistants are usually pretty helpful. You don’t necessarily need a prescription from your doctor either. So, if you’re ever cursed with a UTI, for example, pharmacists can often prescribe for you there-and-then, to put a stop to one of the world’s most agonising, anger-inducing, and all-round irritating pains. Some useful info: the Crow Road Boots closes at 8pm, Byers Road Boots at 9pm and Central Station has a “midnight pharmacy” which is usually open ‘til 10pm. 

Though sexual health clinics have paused routine check-ups, places like Lloyds Pharmacy and Superdrug offer STI test kits. Rated 10/10 by a friend who ordered hers on a Tuesday, received it Wednesday and got results by Thursday, these are definitely a valid option for anyone who is concerned about their sexual health, but without significant-enough symptoms to qualify for Sandyford’s currently limited testing facilities. For this option, cash will have to be splashed, however, the speedy process will either quickly put your mind at ease, or get you fast-tracked to the GP. 

And then onto the ever-growing pool of online, contactable mental health resources. Something that many of us will have been previously directed towards by the GP, we may automatically roll our eyes: what use will a webpage be when you’re hazily entering day 14 and still find yourself unable to get out of bed in the morning? Whilst they admittedly won’t fill the gap where medications are concerned, more and more have made it possible for either phone or online chat conversations to be had, incorporating medically-used techniques based upon cognitive behavioural therapy. Condition-specific advice and help can be found by using the NHS list of mental health charities here.

Beat is a go-to for eating disorder help, and there are a variety of services available to survivors of sexual assault, for example, The Survivors Trust, which offers a free and confidential helpline: whether you want to discuss your situation or simply call for a chat, their phone advisors are there to support you. There are limitations, but many services try to mimic a virtual therapist as much as possible, and can often provide calmness, clarity and even simply a comforting presence during darker times. There is also the option to text “SHOUT” to 85258 to receive 24-hour text support. 

Whilst social media influencers sing about the joys of therapy, for most of us, £60-an-hour sessions aren’t even contemplatable. But self-help books, as hit-or-miss as many can be, are abundant! So read reviews, use that Audible credit and at worst, simply distract yourself from the toxicity of social media, or the anxiety-provoking present, by getting lost in a book. Mental health lows hit different people differently, but I find running, reading and writing all exceptionally beneficial, and really anything that gets your endorphins going is a perfectly valid coping mechanism. Mental health, now more than ever, should not be trivialised, however as access to normal services gets tougher, finding and using alternative options is imperative.

A word of warning, though, for all of the above: as much as it’s important to explore online, remember that if you do have a persistent or troubling problem, the option of contacting your GP shouldn’t fall by the wayside – Dr Google can only do so much. 


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