Hospitals can transform a stressful situation into a positive experience or a nightmare. So if you want some civilised treatment, you should get ill in France

Jack Pringle

Hospitals are the barometers of how civilised our society is. After a bad experience in my teens I have avoided them for 40 years but a series of recent incidents in my family hasmade me realise that we all need good hospitals and we are either eternally grateful or devastated by the service they deliver.

Let’s start with the good news: I’ve recently become a dad (again) and my new daughter was delivered in the Sheppard Robson-designed Chelsea and Westminster hospital on London’s Fulham Road. It’s a street design opened 20 years ago and is infused with light, cafes and art. It’s not perfect but they basically got it right and it has stood the test of time. The medical staff are brilliant and I take my hat off to the cleaner I saw lying on the floor scrubbing the lift door floor tracks out with a toothbrush.

By dark contrast, another relation was recently admitted to the John Radcliffe in Oxford. This was a demeaning grizzly affair from the pay-to-park car park, the windswept abandoned reception, to the lifts with plumes of filth clinging to their ventilation grilles. The administration was chaotic and nothing good seemed to be capable of happening there. One 90-year-old patient was discharged from the ward at night to wait in the snow for a bus home. Humanity seemed as absent as the maintenance and cleaning regime. Last December a 24-year-old in the family was rushed to the National in Queen Square in London, the UK’s leading neurosurgery hospital. There, top surgeons and astonishingly capable and caring nurses got her back on her feet. But the conditions they work under are make-do-and-mend and the rehabilitation ward is cramped, has no patient privacy and is thoroughly unsatisfactory. This, our UK centre of excellence for brain surgery and recovery, is housed in an extended Victorian warren with compromised spaces, services andfacilities. The ophthalmology team seems to live in a corridor in the basement. The lifts seem regularly broken and even the newly renovated areas are second rate and derided bythe staff as falling apart. The John Radcliffe may have been an insult to the patients; Queen Square’s building is an insult to staff and patients alike.

PFI delivered a lot of new hospitals, but it was an unsatisfactory, squanderous system and we still need more medical facilities

Compare and contrast with France. Two years ago a family member fell down a flight of stone stairs in Cannes and was taken in an ambulance to their “NHS” hospital. It was like going to a designer sci-fi world. Like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the ambulance “docked” in a white-tiled reception bay and the patient was taken straight in for instant assessment. I was asked to wait in a plush comfortable modern room with refreshments to hand. Ten minutes later I was given the patient’s jewellery as she was in a full bodyscan. She was operated on and soon in a single bedroom with her own remote controls for the TV and the external brise soleil shading the windows. The whole hospital was beautiful, colourful and spotless. It was like a boutique hotel. The French don’t really do “bedside manner” and surprisingly the food was not that great. But the hospital and its medical treatment were simply in another league to the UK and you felt you were in safe hands. This quality of care is not unusual in France - a friend is having a baby in Nice where she will have a private room with a view of the sea. They do put more money into their healthcare, but they also make it work.

We must do better. PFI delivered a lot of new hospitals, but it was an unsatisfactory, squanderous system and we still need more medical facilities. When the life of your nearest and dearest is in the hands of the NHS, you will want our brilliant medics to work in the very best conditions and your relation to be treated and recover in humane, civilised surroundings.

PF2 is desperately needed to finish the job and deliver, high quality, well organised and well-designed facilities for our medical staff and our increasingly needy population.

Jack Pringle is managing director at Pringle Brandon Perkins + Will and chair of the Construction Industry Council