Outpatients at St George’s Hospital, 1733-1948

This blogpost was written by Alexandra Foulds, Project Archivist at St George’s, University of London.

How did you become an outpatient at St George’s Hospital before the creation of the NHS? What was it like to be an outpatient at St George’s Hospital at this time? Well, from its establishment in 1733 until the creation of the NHS in 1948, St George’s Hospital was what was called a voluntary hospital, which meant that it was reliant on receiving donations from ‘subscribers’ for funding. The board of governors at St George’s Hospital was made up of those who made large financial contributions to the hospital and medical staff who, unlike at most voluntary hospitals, were eligible to make subscriptions to the hospital.

In order to support themselves, voluntary hospitals ‘ran continuous appeals and publicity campaigns’, and voluntary hospitals competed with each other for funding. They would organise dinners and fundraisers which played an important part in the social calendar for donors. The expanding middle class would donate to the hospitals out of philanthropy and because of the social status it brought them. Becoming a subscriber to a voluntary hospital also meant that you could refer people to the hospital to become an outpatient or inpatient, and the amount donated equated to a certain number of referrals that were allowed per year.

Voluntary hospitals were created in the eighteenth century to give free medical treatment to the ‘sick poor’, or those who could not afford to be treated by private physicians. A distinction was made between the ‘poor’ who were considered to be self-reliant and therefore believed to be deserving of charity and the ‘destitute’ who were not. As Henry Burdett, the hospital administrator who helped to establish the British Hospitals Association in 1884, stated:

‘The people who are entitled to free relief are those who are able to maintain themselves independently of all extraneous assistant until the hour of sickness, when the breadwinner, for instance, is  struck down, or the added expense of sickness in the home renders it necessary that the hospital of dispensary should step in’.

This meant that initially to be treated as an outpatient or an inpatient at a voluntary hospital like St George’s, patients needed a letter from one of the hospital governors or a hospital subscriber that said that they were ‘proper objects of charity’, and even once patients had been accepted they were subject to suspicion that they may be abusing the system.

The outpatient department functioned alongside dispensaries to provide out of hospital medical care to poor patients on a charitable basis, and it was where the majority of what we now refer to as primary care was conducted.

Patients at St George’s mostly came from Westminster and Pimlico, both of which were largely poor, working class areas and some parts of which were slums. In 1910 St George’s Hospital reported that the majority of patients came from Westminster (Pimlico), Chelsea, Fulham and Battersea, with a few coming from further South in Clapham, and Lavender Hill (King Edward). 6% of these patients were trained servants, however, only 2 1/4% were currently employed as servants, and their average annual wage was between £21 and £22.

Photo of a newspaper clipping showing a photo of people attending the unveiling of the bust of John Hunter at the St George's Hospital Medical School, Hyde Park Corner. Not Dated.

After receiving a letter from a subscriber to the hospital, outpatients would visit St George’s Hospital. They would first be seen by a Medical Officer who would decide whether a patient was an acceptable hospital case, should be an outpatient or an inpatient, or should be treated as a casualty in which case they would be seen by a doctor immediately. The term casualty could apply to anything from ‘a small cut’ to a ‘bad toothache’, as well as those who had been in an accident. Once a patient had been accepted as an outpatient an Inquiry Officer would ask for their name, age, occupation, address, their marital status, their wages, and if they were married then their number of children that were dependent on them. In the case of patients who were children they would also be asked for information about the father, and in the case of married women they would be asked for information about their husbands.

Upon their second attendance at the hospital they would be seen by a Casualty Officer and an Almoner. The almoner could then investigate to advise on whether free treatment should be ceased and patients should be referred to workhouse infirmaries, private practitioners, dispensaries, or other hospitals. In 1910, of the 48,583 outpatients 6,768 cases were investigated, with 432 considered not suitable for treatment. The almoner could also decide along with the doctor whether home visits from volunteer ‘lady health visitors’ should be organised, or whether instruments (such as trusses for hernias) or meals should be provided, generally paid for out of the Hospital’s Samaritan Fund which was principally made up of subscriptions from hospital governors. The almoner was also responsible for coordinating with charitable societies to ensure that patients would continue to receive the care they needed outside of the hospital.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, outpatient treatment numbers were small, however, from 1835 they began to rise and continued to rise until the beginning of the twentieth century. In the years 1833-1842, St George’s Hospital treated 70,000 cases of which 44,000 were outpatients. By 1910, St George’s treated 48,583 outpatients in that year alone, of which 67% were casualties.

As a result, doctors had to treat patients incredibly quickly, with Dr Robert Bridges, a casualty physician at St Bartholomew’s Hospital and later the Poet Laureate, writing in 1878 that he had to treat over 30,000 outpatients a year at a rate of 88 seconds per patient. By 1900, St George’s Hospital introduced a limit on how many new outpatients would be treated each day with the rest being turned away. In 1910 average outpatient attendances were approximately 160 a day, with new cases limited to 15 per hospital department per day, with all patients being seen first by a superintendent who imposed the limit when they arrived at the hospital. If a patient was not one of the 15 but was considered to require treatment he was brought back the next day.

Photo of the outpatient department at St George's Hospital at Hyde Park Corner.

As outpatient departments provided free access to health care, they were viewed as being in competition with private physicians and were therefore seen as a threat to the physician’s income. This meant that in medical journals outpatient departments, and voluntary hospitals more generally, were frequently described as locations in which patients abused the medical system by getting free care when they could afford to be treated by a private doctor.

By the end of the nineteenth century several voluntary hospitals, St George’s among them, was choosing not to require a letter from a hospital subscriber for outpatients (Louden), and so physicians tried to introduce the requirement for patients to be referred to the hospital by private practitioners in order to prevent this perceived abuse of the system. A letter to the British Medical Journal in 1894 stated that:

‘The abuse of the hospitals’ outpatient departments is an evil so gigantic that the tendency is to regard it […] as necessary in the sense of being unavoidable […] The remedy lies in the hands of those who suffer most from the unfair competition of the hospitals, and it is idle to appeal to the public or to the hospital authorities. […] The remedy I would suggest (though I claim no originality) would be to admit to the outpatient department only patients whose cases are certified by some medical authority or medical man to require special consideration’.

In 1910, however, only 3-6% of outpatients at St George’s Hospital were referred by physicians.

These perceived abuses led in 1910 to an investigation into the admission of outpatients in hospitals in London by the King Edward’s Hospital Fund for London, who from 1897 gave funding to voluntary hospitals. They called on people from various medical charities and representatives from each of the voluntary hospitals to testify, asking about the suitability of the letter system, hospital procedures for dealing with outpatients, the numbers of outpatients and the kinds of cases hospitals treated, and whether they believed the system was being abused by patients. William West, the treasurer at St George’s at the time, testified, arguing that he did not believe that the system was abused at St George’s, but that there were times it was misused by patients who had paid to be treated by a physician and upon seeing no improvement wanted a second opinion and so visited the hospital.

In 1948 the NHS Acts brought voluntary hospitals under public ownership, however, researchers have argued that it is these nineteenth and early twentieth century arguments about the relationship between hospitals and private physicians that led to our current NHS health system in which patients are required to be referred to specialists in hospitals by their GP.

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