Silent scandals and articles of faith

Please note this post is from my previous blog. To read my posts during the 2017 General Election campaign click here.

Yesterday saw some much-needed blunt talk from the Health Secretary in a speech on what he called the “silent scandal” of errors in the NHS, which led to the needless deaths of 3,000 patients last year.

Jeremy Hunt’s speech at the University College London Hospitals also highlighted the 326 so-called hospital “never events” – mistakes that are so inexcusable they should never happen – that occurred in just 12 months.  This alarming category of mistakes include things such as performing surgery on the wrong part of the body, leaving foreign objects inside the body after an operation and the misidentification of patients.

On both fronts, we should remember that these cases are the minority in a system where the level of patient care is generally extremely high.  Nevertheless, no needless death or ‘never event’ is acceptable and it is right that the NHS should be challenged to improve.

It might sound strange to some for Jeremy Hunt to highlight so straightforwardly what is wrong with a system that he as Secretary of State is responsible for, but to me it’s a refreshing change.  The Secretary of State for Health should be the champion of our interests with the NHS, not the other way around.  Some of the worst of Westminster’s own “never events” have been the stifling of debate over healthcare and the previous government’s refusal to criticise the NHS or allow any suggestion of problems with the system.  This dogmatic approach undoubtedly helped foster a culture of secrecy and in some instances, cover-ups that are only now being exposed.

The inherent virtue of the NHS was taken as an article of faith by many Labour politicians who deliberately portrayed any criticism of the system as an attack on “doctors-n-nurses”, to be seized on as a useful weapon against political opponents.  In doing this, their aim was not to improve patient care but to build a base of electoral support from public sector workers.  These were actions so cynical that they amount to a scandal of their own – low politics of the worst kind.

The NHS is a unique institution, and one we are fortunate to have.  Nye Bevan’s creation of a national health service free at the point of need, regardless of background or circumstance, was revolutionary and without doubt one of our greatest national achievements.  In 2013, however, we need to acknowledge that just like any organisation, the NHS doesn’t always get it right.  I have had many extremely positive experiences of the NHS.  I have also had poor ones – both as a patient and as a visiting relative – and it is absolutely right that politicians should be challenging the system to improve.

Unfortunately it is politicians that have been the cause of many of the problems we have seen – which is why the Health and Social Care Act’s central principle of giving health professionals a greater say in how the system is run is a vast improvement.  With the reforms now cementing, Jeremy Hunt is right to move the political conversation on to the crucial topic of patient safety and how we can make the system the best it can be.

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