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<em>Picture: Peter Sheik</em>

Picture: Peter Sheik

Do health journalists make the worst patients?

That was a question I pondered last week when – for the fourth time in as many moments – I panicked and stayed the hand of a dedicated health professional who was only trying to do what was good for me, that is, puff a puffy thing into my eye to check the pressure was okay.

I’m a bit funny about eyes; truth be told, I’m a bit funny about a lot of things and that is possibly one of the reasons why I give health services as wide a berth as possible. But eyes are a particular no-go area and I’m sure that nobody puffed a puffy thing into them the last time I had them tested.

Then again, that was 29 years ago, so maybe things have moved on a little. At that time, I was at school and studying for Highers. Some of the books had really wee writing and so my parents thought this might be the cause of the headaches which were making me so crabby (these days it’s just called being a teenager). True enough, the optician (possibly with pound signs in his own bespectacled eyes), solemnly agreed this might be the case and prescribed some pink-framed monstrosities. I wore them until realisation dawned that actually I could see just as well without them and, from that day, hadn’t bothered to go back.

Over the years I did have sort-of eye tests a couple of times. My first paper (early 1990s) brought in a chap in a white coat to check out all of us who were using computers. The result was a clean bill of eye health. Similarly, the occupational health check which was compulsory before joining the Scotsman declared me a glasses-free zone.

So why last week’s test? A few things helped overcome my natural resistance to all things medical/ocular. First, I’m in my mid-40s. For a year or so now, it’s become really difficult to read things like laundry labels. Also, reading is a great joy and passion for me, so it struck me that I was actually being quite stupid in not making sure all was okay with my eyes. Plus, with an optometrist opening up in my nearest small town, there was less excuse to put it off for reasons of geography.

And finally, my shrewd, calculating self worked out that I might as well get an NHS eye test while they are still free!

And it was okay, on the whole, although it seemed to take ages. The chap was pleasantness itself, and didn’t even betray slight irritation when I wouldn’t let him do his puffy thing. I could just imagine him thinking that children were never this much trouble, as he offered to try it on my hand first, so that I’d know it wasn’t too bad and actually, after the first go, it was fine, really. The upshot was that my eyes are healthy – and I appreciate how lucky I am to be able to say that – although reading will (as I knew) get trickier as I get older.

And probably I’ll be just as clammy and uptight about it the next time I go – not for two years! – because that’s how it seems to go. Take the dentist: I had to go to mine a couple of months ago due to a broken tooth. I felt so nervous that I took some placatory eggs (from my chickens) to bribe him into being kind. Of course he was, as he always is, so I don’t know why I do my best to avoid him.

I spend my days writing about health and health politics, thinking about health and health politics (and sometimes even dreaming about it). I have the highest opinion of most of the people who work in the health service and am a vehement supporter of the NHS – yet I remain a terrible and reluctant patient.

I’m not sure what it’s like for the clinicians either. On the one hand, they might expect to have a reasonably well-informed person (me) seeking help, but on the other, they might worry lest I write about the treatment I get. Sometimes, it might be a benefit – I was able, for example, to inform my own GP in Newcastle some years ago about an impending crisis with the contraceptive pill which we journalists heard about before the health service.

(This was due to a glitch in the then embryonic information “cascade” system, which was intended to ensure practices weren’t caught on the hop.) She later thanked me for the heads-up, which helped the practice get organised. Then again, when things go wrong (although I’ve learned not to write about personal or family-related experiences) it’s hard not to let it colour judgments.

So should health professionals wince when health journalists come through their door? Possibly so, although if my colleagues are anything like me, they’ll do almost anything to avoid going in the first place. But remember, on the upside, they might get some eggs.

eyeDoctors have warned that liquid capsules of fabric detergents should be kept out of reach of young children following a wave of eye injuries.

The capsules accounted for four in ten cases of chemical eye injury in children aged under five who attended a London hospital, according to a letter in this week’s British Medical Journal.

Ophthalmologists Rashmi Mathew and Melanie Corbett, from the Western Eye Hospital, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, warn that the capsules can cause burns to the cornea of the eye, and that the effects can be life-long.

They also report that Guy’s and St Thomas’ Poisons Unit received 192 enquiries related to the capsules during 2007-08 and 225 in 2006-07, a fifth of which related to eye exposure.

The cleaning industry produced liquid capsules for fabric detergents in 2001, the researchers say. Although there are warnings on the packaging, this has not been enough to prevent eye injuries.

They looked at the cases of 13 children, nine of them girls, aged between 14 and 34 months. In 12 children, corneal burns were resolved with no complications. But one child, whose eyes were not washed out with sterile water (corneal irrigation) until arrival at hospital, suffered serious burns to both corneas.

The capsules are more dangerous than initially perceived, say the authors (who include senior chemist Katherine Kennedy) because, when dissolved in water, they give an alkaline solution. Alkali injuries are the most severe form of ocular chemical injury and can cause irreversible damage to the eye.

Specialist registrar Rashmi Mathew told The Caledonian Mercury that she would like to see parents and manufacturers take action. “Parents should know that if a child gets a chemical in the eye, it’s important to wash it out immediately with lots of liquid. They should also ensure that concentrated cleaning products are kept out of reach of children.

“But the manufacturers have a role to play as well, in making the products safer.”

The researchers say that some manufacturers have made hazard labels more prominent, after discussions with Guy’s Poisons Unit.

But Ms Mathew, who instigated the research after seeing a number of patients with detergent capsule-related injury, said the effects of such injuries could stay with children for the rest of their lives. “Fortunately all the children we saw made a complete recovery, including the girl with total burns to both eyes. But in some children, the injuries may never heal, or it may heal, but leave a scar behind.”

She repeated that the most important thing to do if someone gets a chemical in their eye is to wash it out with lots of water and then, if it doesn’t settle, seek medical attention.