By Simon Wilson, medical negligence expert and senior solicitor at Neil Hudgell Solicitors
Jeremy Hunt, the current Health Secretary, has urged NHS hospitals and trusts in England to put safety first, with a new initiative aiming to halve incidences of avoidable harm to patients, and save as many as 6,000 lives over the next three years.
“The fairest healthcare system in the world”
In an article published by the Department of Health on the 28th March, Mr. Hunt proudly described the NHS as “the fairest healthcare system in the world”, and expressed his hope that it will soon also be one of the safest, an ambition he is confident that all front line NHS staff must share.
The politician, who has been Health Secretary since 2012, launched his Sign Up To Safety initiative in the belief that improving the safety standards of the nation’s hospitals is not only a vital step forward in patient welfare, but also a means of streamlining and enhancing NHS services indirectly, by saving money that would otherwise be spent on longer hospital stays, further treatments and higher rates of re-admission.
High cost of preventable harm
Altogether, the NHS spends around £1.3 billion every year on litigation claims.
Hunt highlighted several “startling” payouts such as North Cumbria, which recently paid £3.6 million to just one individual, and Tameside, which paid out a total of £44 million in compensation to patients over just four years.
In a speech during his visit to Seattle’s Virginia Mason Hospital – widely regarded as one of the world’s safest hospitals – Mr. Hunt cited the example of Salford Royal, where it is estimated that £5 million per annum, and 25,000 bed days have been saved by the introduction of safer care.
Sign Up To Safety: A voluntary initiative
Sign Up To Safety is designed as a voluntary initiative, reliant on individual trusts identifying the number and nature of their mistakes, and coming up with plans to reduce them by at least half over the coming years. Mr. Hunt hopes that “avoidable harm” to patients, which most typically takes the form of medication errors, blood clots and bed sores, can be cut down to 50% of its current total by 2016/17, and anticipates this could eliminate a third of preventable deaths.
The push, while primarily aimed at hospitals, is also being marketed towards mental health trusts and those providing community services, in the hope of improving safety standards across the board. The trusts that take action will be rewarded with reduced premiums for insurance cover, helping them to streamline their budgets even further.
Alongside Sign Up To Safety, a number of other measures are being introduced, with the intention of improving overall safety standards and practices in the health service. Among these will be a ‘duty of candour’, which will compel the NHS to be open and honest with the public about mistakes committed by its staff. This was proposed in the aftermath of the Francis Inquiry into the Stafford Hospital scandal, where investigations uncovered “a culture of secrecy and defensiveness” that was seriously and constantly compromising patient safety and well-being.
5,000 safety champions
Mr. Hunt also announced that the NHS will be recruiting 5,000 safety champions, whose job it will be to identify areas of unsafe care at a local level, and developing solutions to address these. The safety champions will be supported by national team called Safety Action For England (SAFE), made up of doctors, managers and patient representatives, who will work together to improve safety levels.
There are also plans to launch a new section of the NHS Choices website this June, provisionally titled ‘How Safe Is My Hospital?’, which will enable patients to compare the relative safety of hospitals across a range of indicators.
Hunt’s announcements were given a mixed reception. Peter Walsh, chief executive of the campaign group Action Against Medical Accidents and a long-term champion of patient safety, praised Hunt for his decisive leadership on the issue, and optimistically singled out the ‘duty of candour’ as “potentially the biggest advance in patients’ rights and patient safety since the creation of the NHS”.
However, Shadow Health Minister Jamie Reed criticized Hunt’s attitude towards streamlining spending, accusing the government of “failing to learn the lessons of the Francis Review”, and warning that over 50% of nurses consider their wards to be “dangerously understaffed”, and believe that patient safety is still getting worse.
It will remain to be seen whether Sign Up To Safety can halt the decline in patient safety in England’s hospitals, and whether, despite the reduction in staff numbers, along with other cuts, Jeremy Hunt can realize his ambition of making the NHS the safest health system in the world.