Does a Mid Staffs culture still pervade the NHS?

By Tony Collins

The Francis report on Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust highlighted appalling record-keeping among other problems.

One of the case studies in the report was that of an insulin-dependent diabetic, Gillian Astbury,  who entered Cannock Hospital for a urinary tract infection, had a fall in the hospital, was discharged, and later admitted to Stafford Hospital on 1 April 2007 because of bones she damaged in the fall. She died ten days later, probably after not being given insulin.

Francis highlights the lack of records on her need for insulin. There was a “failure to keep nursing records adequately or at all … there was a failure to comply with professional guidelines on note taking …”

Astbury’s partner Ron Street told hospital staff that she was diabetic, a point which went into her medical notes – initially.  But, said Francis,  nursing records for Astbury were almost non-existent.

“There is no evidence of what care took place … during interview nursing staff admitted that they did not check or read the notes regularly (if at all) and there was no linkage with notes from other wards …” 

Francis’s recommendations included a call for trust staff and managers to be open and accountable when things that go wrong.

This isn’t happening.

Campaign4Change picked an NHS trust to test whether the pre-Francis culture still prevails: whether there is the same old secrecy and defensiveness over standards of record-keeping, and whether positive news suffocates real and potential problems in trust board reports.

North Bristol NHS Trust

North Bristol NHS Trust has a chronic problem with record-keeping. It installed the Cerner Millennium electronic patient record system in December 2011, prompting a “crisis”.

Later the trust’s PR officer said in response to an FOI request that there had been 16 clinical incidents in two months relating to the new electronic patient record system. “These were all clinical incidents where the new system was cited as a causal factor, such as wrong patient wrong notes, lack of notes, incorrect clinic list,” she said.

She added:  “However our robust safeguarding processes, as well as additional checks and balances in all departments, ensured that clinical safety was not compromised and no patients were put at risk. Our priority is always patient safety and there is no indication that this has been affected.”

Last year North Bristol asked PWC to review the Cerner implementation. In its report PWC claimed that the “Trust is now beginning to move out of the crisis and return to normal operations”. That was in July 2012.

The Trust has still not returned to normal operations. Last month the Department of Health singled out North Bristol as one of only two trusts in England that failed to submit to the DH “incomplete RTT” pathway data. Incomplete pathway data refers to patients still waiting for consultant-led treatment. RTT means referral to treatment.

In August and September 2012 North Bristol was the only trust in England that failed to submit to the DH “incomplete RTT” pathway data.

Trust’s “numerous difficulties”

With little explanation, a North Bristol trust board paper in January this year referred to numerous difficulties relating to IT systems. This was in the context of an increasing number of overdue responses to complaints from patients. Said the board paper:

“Difficulties with appointment bookings and notification letters are still numerous. These are all reported to IM&T.” Again with little explanation another North Bristol board report, in November 2012, referred to “ongoing pressure in Cerner recovery …”.

So what are the Cerner problems, why have they continued for more than a year and has the North Bristol Trust’s board of directors been properly informed about them?

To test North Bristol’s openness on its Cerner problems I asked the Trust’s press officer and its media relations manager whether they could send me any trust report on the problems with the Cerner implementation.

Two days later they said that “some patience would be appreciated” but declined to say when they would respond to my question, so I asked it under FOI. The Trust gave no acknowledgement.

Perhaps North Bristol is too busy to deal with external questions and challenges on its record keeping. But that was one of the big problems highlighted by Francis in his report on Mid Staffs: that the Trust did not respond to external questions and challenges.

Worryingly, North Bristol’s reporting culture seems to prefer the positive over the negative.  This was one of its replies to an FOI request in 2012:

“With respect to inpatients, during November (before the implementation of Cerner) 40 patients were cancelled on the same day as admission for non-clinical reasons. During December (after the implementation of Cerner) 33 patients were cancelled on the same day as admission for non-clinical reasons – 7 fewer than in November.”

This reply – and others  – gave the impression, without giving contextual evidence,  that things were better since the Cerner implementation than before.

Francis in his report on Mid Staffs said,

“… for all the fine words printed and spoken about candour, and willingness to remedy wrongs, there lurks within the system an institutional instinct which, under pressure, will prefer concealment, formulaic responses and avoidance of public criticism.”

This would, it seems, apply to North Bristol – and every one of the other NHS trusts that have had electronic patient record implementations go wrong.

Indeed it is unfair to pick on North Bristol. The positive tone of its board reports is standard practice for trust board reporting across the NHS in England.

Francis said the NHS needs to change. In his letter to Jeremy Hunt on his report, Francis referred to an “institutional culture which ascribed more weight to positive information about the service than to information capable of implying cause for concern”.

But can NHS boards change in the absence of compulsion?

Audits of trust board reports?

One thing Francis did not suggest was that trust boards should have their board reports audited independently for honesty and openness.  An audit would detect an overly buoyant tone that downplayed concerns.  “There were 5 serious falls in December an increase of 3 from November. There were 185 falls in December compared to 139 falls in November, which had the lowest number of falls in one month this year.”

This was from a North Bristol board report that gave no explanation of the five serious falls. But the report made the point that November (2012) had the lowest number of falls in one month this year. If you were among the five who’d had a serious fall in hospital – and in Gillian Astbury’s case a fall in Stafford Hospital led to her death – you would probably want the trust’s board to focus on an analysis of the five serious falls, rather than be told how good a month November was for falls.

Board reports are a window on the culture of a public sector organisation. In the NHS nobody in authority seems not to have noticed that an American corporate positivism pervades many NHS board reports.  It’s within this culture that needless deaths such as those at Mid Staffs went unnoticed.

Until NHS trust board reports become more business-like and deal with concerns and potentially serious problems as would a private sector board – instead of giving the impression that they are trying to celebrate so-called achievements – the Francis report may make little difference.

North Bristol’s apparent unwillingness to disclose any detail of its Cerner problems – perhaps to its own board – is to be expected; but that natural reluctance to disclose may be symptomatic of one of the NHS’s biggest problems. The unnecessary deaths at Mid Staffs will be for nothing if the NHS does not change in the light of the Francis report. Complacency, arrogance, a preoccupation with good news and a culture of downplaying or even trying to ignore bad news are the enemy. Unless a board approach of honesty and openness is independently audited and enforced, Francis’s recommendations may bring little lasting change.

One response to “Does a Mid Staffs culture still pervade the NHS?

  1. Very well said, Sir.
    Searching for a name for this good-news-only-masking-the-cesspit-reality syndrome – Panglossian? Potemkin?


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