Lessons from Mid-Staffordshire

Notes on an informal Socialist Health Association discussion 8/5/13

This is still work in progress.  We haven’t decided anything, and we would particularly welcome constructive comments on what we might say which would be helpful.

We don’t think more regulation will avoid future problems.  In fact we are not very convinced about the Care Quality Commission or its predecessors.  Registering providers is worth doing, but is there good evidence that the inspecting and monitoring regimes delivers results?  Ofsted style ratings and Chief Inspectors are meaningless gimmicks. Local monitoring of standards based on more transparency is a more productive way forward.  In particular we think Commissioners should take more responsibility for the quality of services they are paying for.

We need the Secretary of State for Health to be held responsible to Parliament for the NHS, but this on its own is clearly not sufficient.

Much of the reporting of Mid Staffs is inaccurate and heavily spun – we should avoid knee jerk reactions to sweeping generalisation.

The official channels for patient and public involvement and for dealing with complaints and the people within the various bodies in Stafford had no credibility.

What works with clinicians – and indeed managers – is peer pressure.

We can learn from two features that unite almost all the clinical scandals over the last 50 years which have been:

  1. Patients who are unable to complain, have few friends or visitors and are largely invisible.  Stafford was very unusual in that much of the dreadful stuff happened in and around the casualty department, the most public part of the hospital.
  2. Clinical isolation –usually accompanied by geographical isolation.  Stafford is a small hospital in a small town.  Clinical practices were tolerated which would not have been survived in a more fluid environment.

There has been a lot of talk about protecting whistleblowers, but staff can commit professional suicide by causing trouble.  Junior doctors regard it as risky to mention things to their own consultant. The idea of involving anyone outside is largely unthinkable.

National clinical audits are a key driver to increase quality and encourage peer comparison. There are a number of successful examples of this, including stroke and hip fracture.

There are useful lessons from the experience of some of the better Community Health Councils. In particular:

  1. The funding and management of CHCs was controlled at Regional level, insulating them from political pressure locally.
  2. Their operation was very publicly transparent – all meetings were held in public.
  3. They built up relations of trust with local organisations and their staff, so benefited from a great deal of what would now be called whistleblowing. Staff could contact the local CHC suggesting that they might like to visit a particular area of their hospital and telling them what they might like to look for.  As the CHC visited regularly this was quite safe for the staff.
  4. The informal role taken by many CHCs in assisting complainants was helpful in alerting them to problem areas that needed investigation.
  5. CHCs were stable organisations, with experienced staff who built up relationships of trust over long periods.  Since they were abolished the successor organisations have been transitory with short term funding and repeatedly reorganised.
  6. CHCs grew in confidence, particularly in dealing with the media, over the years.  Healthwatch needs to be encouraged in this area.  In particular the new rule that Healthwatch must not campaign for changes in local or national policy needs to be repealed.

Healthwatch could be strengthened to take account of this experience. Funding must be separated from the local authority which will have a larger role in the organisation of the NHS.  It is already clear that some local politicians regard their local Healthwatch as a threat and are doing their best to suppress any independence. 

The organisation which represents the patients’ voice must be insulated from political pressure.  It needs long term financial stability so that it attracts and keeps experienced staff.  Healthwatch England needs to be charged with providing specialised expertise, technical, clinical and legal.

Local Healthwatch already has the power to “enter and view” premises from which health and social care are provided if publicly funded.  This includes unannounced visits, so long as it doesn’t “compromise the effective provision of care services”.   Royal colleges are increasingly publishing quality standards, which set a benchmark- for example that acute medical units should have 12 hour 7 day consultant cover. These benchmarks are very useful for lay assessors. Lay people need some support in understanding what they are looking at, and if such standards are comprehensible they are useful for patients too.  But not everything is susceptible to lay inspection.  Peer review is also needed.  But the NHS should define and commission what minimum standard of service must be provided (eg on hip fracture, a theatre slot within 36 hours and ortho-geriatrician review as standard), and wherever possible in terms that patients can understand.  The most effective monitoring of services is that provided by the people at the receiving end.

We also need to rethink our ideas about Foundation Trusts. Over the last 10 years their independence has centred on a rather nebulous financial autonomy to make then behave like “businesses. Accountability to members or to the elected governors is weak and unconvincing, even to those directly involved, and such accountability as there is centres on financial, not clinical, performance.

Labour’s vision for health and social care needs to include ideas about how we can redistribute power in healthcare.  This needs to include much greater transparency and local accountability.