With the election only now days away, this brief blog is about my personal experience and what I’ve learned about the NHS and politics in recent years.
In 2008 I lost my baby son Joshua at Furness General Hospital (FGH). The circumstances were horrific. A short film telling Joshua’s story is available here.
From that moment my life changed forever. In the aftermath of Joshua’s death, although I recognised that nothing could bring him back, I expected that the NHS and the many bodies and organisations involved in the delivery and regulation of healthcare services would act to ensure that what happened was properly reviewed, lessons learned, appropriate action taken and yes, I even had the naive hope that my family and I would be treated with kindness and compassion and helped and supported in coming to terms with our loss.
What actually happened could not have been more different. Before we had even buried Joshua, critical medical records went missing. The system then acted to sweep away his death, apparently failing to make links with a large number of other avoidable deaths that happened in the same small maternity unit. The people served by the hospital were reassured services were safe – ‘nothing to see here’ was the message the public were given about Morecambe Bay Trust before the May 2010 general election.
In reality, maternity services at FGH were in the midst of a ‘lethal mix’ of serious systemic failures that continued to cost innocent lives. 6 more babies died avoidable deaths at FGH after my son died. Children that should be alive today had the system acted properly, now only graves. Several others babies suffered avoidable serious harm. The problems at Morecambe Bay were wider than just in maternity services. In 2011, the trust as a whole had the highest mortality rate of any in the country.
How is it that despite the plethora of organisations and bodies whose very function should have been to act to keep people safe, the problems at Morecambe Bay remained hidden for so long?
The Kirkup report published last month details a catalogue of miss-understandings and monumental cock up in great detail. But when you consider that around the same period, serious problems were happening across the NHS including Mid Staffs and almost certainly in the 11 Trusts subsequently placed in to special measures, it’s clear that the real issue was of a more fundamental nature.
In my view, the real reason why problems at Morecambe Bay, Mid Staffs and so many other hospitals remained hidden for so long is rooted in an ideology that put the perception of a flourishing and safe NHS, as being more important that the welfare of those using it.
You don’t have to look far to find examples.
During his evidence to the Francis inquiry Andy Burnham spoke of a ‘very real tension’ that ministers were caught between the independence of the NHS and their responsibility to the public saying ‘we have a responsibility to maintain public confidence’. But what does this really mean?
Giving evidence to the same inquiry, Barbara Young, Labour peer and former chair of the CQC said ‘…there was huge government pressure, because the government hated the idea that a regulator would criticise it’.
If the NHS is seen as a political trophy and the public perception of there being no problems is seen as important to voters confidence, is it any wonder that under the last government, problems like those at Morecambe Bay remained firmly under wraps?
Over the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to meet many people who are passionate about reducing the variation in the quality and safety of healthcare. This has included the current Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt. The first time I met Jeremy was in early 2013, we had a long conversation about what happened to Joshua and tears were shed. I knew from that first meeting that Hunt was sincere and passionate about improving patient safety.
The route to changing culture and improving patient safety is a tough one for any politician to take. For example, increasing the independence and the effectiveness of regulation maybe the right thing to do if we are sincere about protecting patients from poor care, but doing so will inevitably lead to problems surfacing that may have otherwise remained quiet and out of the headlines.
In a recent letter to me, Andy Burnham stated he was disappointed that ‘recommendations from the second Francis report have not been implemented’ and that ‘care failings are continuing’, pointing to Whipps Cross as an example.
The irony here is inescapable. Here we have a critical report highlighting some serious problems in a hospital, the publication of which will allow actions to be taken to help ensure patients are kept safe (what families affected by systemic failures at Mid Staffs and Morecambe Bay desperately wanted to happen earlier). The fact that such a report was published in such close proximity to a general election is itself proof that the biggest lesson of all from Francis has been learned. That we must never return to an ideology where the NHS is used as a political weapon; keeping bad news quiet at the expense of the safety of patients and maintaining a false picture of NHS performance because in helps ministers maintain voters confidence that they are doing a good job.
There remains much work to be done to improve culture and safety in the NHS, but in recent years there has been real progress. As a father of a child that died due to avoidable failures in care and as someone who has seen the incredible care that the NHS can deliver at it’s best, I sincerely hope that the current drive and momentum to tackle poor care and variation in quality will continue into the next parliament.
Please use your vote on 7th May wisely.