Jeremy Hunt leads safety initiative

confed 2014 020There has been some funny coverage today of what could be a significant safety initiative for the NHS, that is being fronted by health secretary Jeremy Hunt.

The funny coverage started on Radio 4, which managed to say there was some kind of report out that would suggest “a fifth” of hospitals didn’t have good safety reporting procedures in place; but which didn’t manage to mention other, key facts (like who had done the report, where people could find out about their local trusts, or exactly why it was Hunt who was going to be on Today).

This was followed up by similarly content-free coverage on the Guardian and the Telegraph, both of which ran stories that boiled down to: ‘Hunt was on the radio this morning, talking about something that didn’t sound too good’.

After which the papers managed to get some detail, but still ran their stories under very odd headlines. The Guardian had something about the health secretary “turning the screws on the NHS” at one point; and much as it’s always hard to admit just how good Hunt is at his job, that seemed like an odd interpretation of his (rather brave) decision to lead a campaign that will show some hospitals are not all that good (given there is no guarantee they will get better).

So, what has happened? First of all the Department of Health has launched a website – more acurately, a new bit of NHS Choices – that publishes information for every hospital in the country about a range of issues, including staffing levels and whether they carry out basic checks on patients that can, for instance, stop them getting blood clots.

At least two things look really good about this. First, the DH has grasped the nettle of being reluctant to comment on its statistics, and said that some trusts don’t seem to be reporting enough information, and that’s a worry (the source of the Today angle). Second, it has not only published information, but had the guts to give the public some indication of what it means by putting it out on a spredsheet with good, ok, and bad clearly flagged up in green, blue and red.

Glance down the list and you really can see at a glance that some hospitals are red for just about everything you can think of – from failing to assess the risk of their patients developing blood clots to whether staff would set foot in the place if they didn’t work there.

Sure, there will be issues about trusts focusing on these new measures to the exclusion of other things (including things that pressure groups want them to focus on – and Unison is already calling for more staffing and better paid workers as the solution to all problems).

But this bright, simple approach really ought to focus minds on sorting out some basics because, for the first time, it will be easy for peers and patients to see how a hospital is doing on things that, frankly, it ought to have sorted.

Second, Hunt has launched a campaign, headed by the chief executive of Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust, David Dalton, to try and improve safety across the board – and so get to the levels of what is supposed to be the safest trust in the country.

Twelve trusts have signed up so far, and are now developing plans to reduce “avoidable harm”. This sounds simple, but is actually a much tougher task than, say, improving a standardised hospital mortality ratio (some trusts have started to get into this by, for example, investigating every death, or treating every ‘crash’ call as an incident, on the grounds that patients should never deteriorate to the point of needing the team to be called).

Trusts that sign up will be reviewed by the NHS Ligitation Authority, which already runs a limited form of banding for insurance premiums; and so will have a significant financial incentive to improve.

But, finally, a Safety Action for England team is also being set up to spread best practice and encourage the others. So all very practical and very positive, basically. Perhaps a bit too much so for a press suspicous of Hunt’s intentions towards the NHS?

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