New Labour’s NHS targets for patient care may be an underlying factor in a series of scandals surrounding NHS hospital trusts.
The Francis report into excessive death rates and failures in patient care at Mid Staffs trust found that the Department of Health had been too remote in its management of the NHS – and had introduced organisational changes which were counterproductive to patient care.
An excessive death rate among Mid Staffs patients admitted as emergencies had been investigated by the Healthcare Commission in 2008 – and after the report was published in 2009, New Labour Health Secretary Andy Burnham ordered a public inquiry into the trust.
This fell to the Coalition to launch in 2010 and earlier this year the Francis report made a series of damning conclusions about a lack of compassion and care, which had led to the excessive death rate and appalling instances of patient neglect at Mid Staffs.
Some patients had been forced to drink water from flower vases after being left thirsty – while others went hungry after meals were left out of their reach. Inexperienced junior doctors were left to make life or death decisions in critical care – and nurses were allowed to use life changing medical equipment without proper training. Patients had been found crying for help on the wards – and others were left without vital pain relief, causing them agonising discomfort.
Some families received an average compensation payout of £11,000 for the loss of their loved ones – many still question how such an uncaring and compassionless culture could have arisen in the NHS, with data on failings and abnormal death rates being suppressed rather than flagged up as a cause for concern.
The Francis report has called for such cover ups to face criminal charges – and for doctors to be more transparent when mistakes in patient care occur.
The Royal College of Nursing was also criticised for failing to support nursing staff who tried to flag up failings in patient care at their own trusts.
Recently an inquiry into mother and baby deaths at Furness General Hospital in Cumbria has reawakened concerns over the standard of patient care in the health service – and the Met Police have been asked to investigate an alleged cover up relating to baby deaths at Morecambe Bay NHS trust.
Under New Labour, NHS trusts were set targets for the amount of time doctors could spent with emergency admission patients, with a four-hour limit being set from admission to A&E to discharge after treatment or admission to a ward as an inpatient.
Many trusts struggled to achieve the targets, with the result that failings were not reported and were even “covered up” so hospitals would not lose their “star rating” – another NHS performance incentive introduced by New Labour.
The Francis report has now called for compassion to be placed first in the recruitment, training and education of nursing staff.
The main witness at the Mid Staffs inquiry was the trust’s then chief executive Sir David Nicholson – now CEO of the NHS.
During the public inquiry led by Robert Francis QC, Sir David claimed that the failings in patient care at Mid Staffs did not constitute a systemic failure in the NHS as it was only hospital involved in such a scandal.
Counsel for the inquiry called his statement “naïve” and “dangerous” – and Sir David is set to step down from his NHS post by March 2014.
However, Sir David is credited with hauling the NHS out of a £1bn debt in 2006 and with tackling the hospital-acquired infections outbreak in 2007 – and has remained at the NHS helm under the Coalition government as a result.
Many families continue to ask themselves how their loved ones could have died at Mid Staffs in the care of staff supposed to help them – and whether the inquiries into Cumbria and Morecambe Bay NHS trusts will open the floodgates to yet more cover ups over patient care in the health service.
Presenting his report into Mid Staffs NHS trust, Robert Francis QC said:
“People must always come before numbers. Individual patients and their treatment are what really matters. Statistics, benchmarks and action plans are tools not ends in themselves. They should not come before patients and their experiences. This is what must be remembered by all those who design and implement policy for the NHS.”
Despite his findings, he also concluded that Mid Staffs NHS hospital not be closed.
More information on the Mid Staffs Hospital Scandal here.