Compassion Failure by Barbara Nadel

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Many, many trees have given their lives lately so that greyer heads than my own can talk about our National Health Service here in the UK. This is mainly in relation to a report that has been published into complaints levelled at Mid Staffordshire Health Trust. The hospitals in this trust were accused by patients and their families of negligence and poor practice, faults that were, eventually, upheld by this report. People died, often elderly people, frequently in pain and filth because of the inaction of staff and management at Mid-Staffs. So far no-one has lost his or her job in spite of the truly horrific details that have been published but then, personally, I am not surprised.

I worked in NHS hospitals for many years as a mental health advocate and I saw and heard things that are very redolent of the the Mid-Staffs case. Patients complaints were frequently viewed as ‘just delusional’ and as patients representatives my team and myself were looked upon as trouble makers. Even when we complained on our own account about a particular doctor and his inappropriate behaviour towards us we were not listened to. It was only when someone from outside the hospital, a contractor, complained about him that anything was done. Then the police broke his office door down and arrested him for sexually abusing his patients – something everyone had known about for years. But we’d all been told to shut up and stop lying.

It has been said that the reason why patients at Mid-Staffs were left to die in their own excrement is because nurses lacked compassion for them. This may well be so but there were doctors in that hospital too and administrators. Why hasn’t anyone talked about their lack of compassion? Well basically because you don’t. I have no doubt that in light of the Mid-Staffs report some members of staff will be sacked but they will be very small fish indeed. Where I used to work we had sackings but only of care assistants and nurses. Even the doctor who abused his patients was only struck off the Medical Register for a short time and he could practice privately during that period.

The Mid-Staffs case is being used by the Government as a stick with which to beat the NHS and, don’t get me wrong, I am not in any way in favour of that. Like most people I love the NHS, I owe it my life and I would fight tooth and nail to protect it. But as a society we must get away from this idea that to criticise the NHS particularly big beasts like doctors and administrators is to be in favour of  it’s dissolution. It is not. Criticism is healthy and if the NHS is to survive then it MUST address this issue about sacred cows. Doctors are not perfect, they are not greater beings than nurses, advocates or cleaners. When they or their administrative masters screw up they should be punished and when that doesn’t happen, believe me, staff morale as a whole will suffer. I’ve worked with bad doctors, I’ve seen good doctors lose the plot because of them and I’ve watched nurses get sacked on their behalf.

The NHS is not suffering from compassion failure, it is suffering from a culture of secrecy based upon a 1950s style hierarchy of untouchable doctors and managers that is poisoning its heart. If it doesn’t stop this will give our ghastly government every weapon it needs to dismantle the NHS and replace it with costly private care.  Most doctors and managers will care deeply about this as most of them are good people but it won’t affect them personally. When you earn over £100,000 a year you can pay for treatment.  But most other people can’t and it is those people (including me) that have to be taken into account if the NHS is privatised.

What I’m saying in short therefore is that if the NHS is to survive then it HAS to open up and stop penalising people for blowing the whistle on bad practice. This will instantly raise both standards and morale by making people feel better about what they’re doing. Colluding in cruelty or wrong doing eats away at the soul and eventually blunts all sense of decency and compassion. In addition treating doctors like gods is to be discouraged. They are not gods, they make mistakes and they should have to pay for those mistakes like the rest of us. If we get these criticisms out there now and deal with them rationally and not in a hysterical ‘you’re bashing the NHS’ way, this will work. I’m not and never will bash the NHS but I will continue to bash the bad elements that exist on very fat salaries within in. Let’s have no more sacred cows or cover ups and patients, it’s up to you too, don’t take any shit. That way the NHS we all know and love might just have a chance.

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