Martin Tideswell: Stafford, a wake-up call for all who care about our NHS
UNLESS you have been touched personally by this awful story, it is impossible to imagine what victims of the Stafford Hospital scandal have gone through and how they must feel.
It is estimated that up to 1,200 patients may have died needlessly – many in appalling conditions – between 2005 and 2009 in an environment which should have been the very safest and most reassuring.
The 139-day inquiry into failings at Stafford Hospital made for harrowing reading as anguished relatives of the deceased gave deeply disturbing personal accounts.
They told of frail and elderly patients left ignored, without pain relief, medication or even basic sustenance.
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Witnesses exposed human failings on an epic scale which turned a National Health Service institution into a place of danger and neglect – unworthy of the name 'hospital'.
Although the Stafford Hospital inquiry's chairman Robert Francis QC's report has yet to be published, his findings and recommendations have been heavily trailed in the national media.
His investigation may focus on Stafford Hospital, but it clearly embraces themes universal to healthcare in the UK and should be viewed as a huge wake-up call for anyone who cares about the NHS.
At some point during the last two decades Whitehall meddling has undermined those working within the healthcare system to such an extent that patients have suffered and are suffering.
The testimonies of those who gave evidence to the Stafford Hospital inquiry is clear evidence of this.
The Labour Government, under Tony Blair, introduced targets which were intended to monitor performance and give patients a better deal.
But you don't need to work in the health service or be an expert on it to see that in the rush to meet these, at times, arbitrary goals, hospitals and health centres have been forced to forsake the fundamentals.
There is a fine line between wanting a public service to deliver value for money for taxpayers and preventing it from fulfilling its raison d'être.
At Stafford Hospital the picture that has been painted is one of managers desperately trying to attain the coveted 'Foundation' status for the hospital while patient care went to the dogs. As is usually the way with the public sector, however, these same managers somehow escaped censure – with none of the hospital's executives being disciplined despite the seemingly obvious failings of leadership.
In my opinion, it is high time that this 'touchy-feely' approach to discipline within the public sector was kicked into touch and that those who are ultimately responsible for failures are properly punished.
But surely the most important lesson to be learned from the publication of this damning report will be along the lines of: 'There, but for the grace of God, go all of us.'
In other words, every hospital within the country – indeed, every NHS trust and institution – is at risk of following Stafford Hospital down the route of neglect in the rabid pursuit of targets.
I'm just a patient and the majority of my experiences in hospital in recent years, involving myself or relatives, have been positive. But not all of them. Writing a piece like this you feel duty-bound to extol the virtues of the vast majority of staff within the health service.
Yes, we've all got stories of wonderful, caring NHS doctors and nurses and auxiliary staff who couldn't do enough to make our stay in hospital more comfortable.
Anyone who reads The Sentinel's letters pages regularly will see the praise heaped on staff of ward such-and-such.
But by the same token many of us have less complimentary tales to tell of miserable and unhelpful NHS staff for whom patients seem fairly low down on their list of priorities.
Maybe some are harassed, over-worked or poorly trained – as has been suggested by evidence given to the Stafford Hospital inquiry.
Whatever the reasons, there is something inherently wrong with the system when a receptionist, nurse or doctor can't summon a smile, some sympathy or a little understanding for one's personal predicament.
The vast majority of patients and relatives who show up at A&E, walk-in centres, hospitals and GP surgeries do so presumably because they are, or believe they are, ill.
In doing so they expect and deserve to be treated with concern, respect and dignity by the professionals in whom they place their absolute faith and trust.
This leads me to wonder how much emphasis is placed on empathy when healthcare staff go through their training and how often this is refreshed and reinforced.
You see, there are some things you just can't measure with league tables and performance targets.
We can blame systems and the culture at Stafford Hospital all we want but, ultimately, surely this scandal boils down to a lack of compassion on a very basic, human level.
It is a failing which poses some very troubling questions for the NHS as we look forward.