Parking for the Sick

Healing Spaces?

If we are to celebrate good spaces, we have to also consider what is the opposite. I recently visited a NHS hospital to visit an inpatient and before I’d entered the building I found myself in a ‘Healing’ space that made me feel very ill. Row upon row of coloured metal surrounded by yesterday’s litter and potholes. Between the car parks and the buildings groups of smokers were scattering dog ends and coughing out pollutants.

More than two thousand years ago, Hippocrates’ observation that our well-being is affected by our settings was established as a cornerstone of Western Medicine.

It has been found that improved environment reduces treatment times and even analgesic use. Roger Ulrich, a Professor at Texas A&M University, suggests that each green leaf visible from a hospital window is ‘worth its weight in gold.’ (Day 2006: 2) Yet few NHS patients enjoy such luxury. First impressions last and patients arriving in modern day NHS car parks must wonder if life really is worth living.  

A hospital car park should be a welcoming space that says relax, we are glad you have come.’ As I drove through the hospital gates I felt like an unwanted guest. I was greeted with a grid lock of cars trying to negotiate a double-parked delivery van. I glanced at a collection of complicated signposts in a bid to direct myself to a full visitor parking area, where several more cars lurked, with their engines running, patiently waiting for a space. Two of these drivers raced to get into such a space and the winner received verbal abuse as he got out and deafly headed for the pay and display machine.

These machines raise hospitals millions of pounds a year and with current cuts they are unlikely to disappear. There is clearly a vast shortage of parking, but to make people pay to fight over it and pay for it is ridiculous. Seeing new buildings grow on former car-parks really rubs salt in the wounds.

Uniformed attendants paced around giving me suspicious glances, daring me to abandon my vehicle. I saw one poor lady give up and drive off into relative serenity beyond the gates. The NHS car park is a tense, gladiatorial arena, no place for the faint hearted. She just didn’t have what it takes.

I eventually found a space after a twenty-five minute, strategically placed, wait, reving my car every now and then and staring out any new arrival. I felt a real sense of achievement, but thoughtfully maintained my frown as I ventured towards the pay and display machine rather than gloat to those who remained space-less.

Problems finding a space, the cost of parking and a host of confusing payment systems are among the difficulties facing hospital visitors, who may be going for treatment themselves, according to research by the consumer watchdog Which? Its survey found 67% of people who had used an NHS hospital car park in the last two years thought charges were too high. More than half visitors (52%) had problems finding a space and a third (33%) had to queue or wait to park. Even when they found a space, 33% faced further difficulty trying to pay the charges. The extra stress placed on everyone is detrimental to them and those they come into contact with once they get inside. Which? has found that some hospitals make profits of £1m a year from their car parks. This is a tax on the sick, relatives of the sick, and very detrimental to health.

League table
League table

Many of our older hospitals have grown over the years, often with buildings erected on old parking areas and green spaces considered unnecessary. Sites or parts of sites have also been sold off to developers. Time and again decisions are made with finance rather than health in mind, even though a look at the bigger picture might highlight a financial self harm:

  • Potential visitors, who may have a huge effect on sick patients are put off coming at all.
  • People are late for out-patient appointments.
  • Parking rage develops between drivers, increasing stress levels in all concerned.
  • Parkers take their stress with them into hospital wards.

All this ultimately costs the NHS far more than they can raise in parking tickets and fines.

In August last year, the government actually acknowledged the problem. See BBC report.

If hospitals parking is detrimental to our health, what hope do we have?