This week, a number of people have been challenging those of us involved in NHS Change Day to demonstrate its value. Particularly in the light of the Kirkup report about what went wrong with maternity services at Morecambe Bay Hospitals over an extended period.
For example @GeorgeJulian wrote this interesting blog.
There are others questioning whether NHS Change Day is a cult, a cheer-leading exercise led by those with not enough to do, a distraction from the grindingly hard work of running the NHS without sufficient resources, even an opportunity for organisations to put a gloss on how tough things are for patients and staff.
I can see why they might think that. I have another take on it.
The Kirkup report was shocking, for me even more so than the Mid Staffordshire Hospitals report. It got to the heart of what can go wrong when staff go rogue and collude, when key professionals who should be working together in harmony for the benefit of patients declare war on one another, when clinicians are simply not competent to practice, and when managers, commissioners, regulators and even the ombudsman indulge in a form of magical thinking, ignoring the evidence of high rates of death and other serious incidents and accepting assurances that should never have been given. The courage of families, including the man who worked at the hospital and lost his wife and new baby, and James Titcombe and his wife whose baby son Joshua died, has been extraordinary. We owe them a debt of gratitude for never giving up and continuing to insist that the evidence must be looked at properly.
So how can NHS Change Day help? I write now as a nurse and a manager. There have been many times in my 41 years when I have been aware of something not being right. The first time I blew the whistle, I was just 18 and hadn’t even started my nurse training. You’ll have to wait for my book to read the details; suffice to say, I was ill-prepared, it didn’t go well and I was sent away with a flea in my ear. Sometimes it was me that made mistakes, sometimes it was someone else; these things can happen, and we were rightly taught always to own up if we had erred. But what about the surgeon with the shaky hands that everyone was expected to ignore, or the night sister who slept in the laundry room when she should have been supervising us? Who wants to be hated for being a sneak and reporting people who are liked, or may be experiencing personal problems?
My blood ran cold reading about those midwives at Morecambe Bay. They reminded me of maverick teams I have known. Teams who are brusque and unwelcoming however hard you try to engage them, who repel enquiries, describe managers who visit their services and ask questions as interfering, or even talk about bullying if an aspect of their working practice is questioned. And what about more senior clinicians, such as doctors, who are described by colleagues as brilliant but eccentric, and can be extremely unpleasant and difficult to deal with. The ones who write you long letters describing, with great charm, the stupidity of your ways for trying to introduce a change to improve the experience of patients. These people are the exception, but they have a massive impact. I can remember as an executive being told by a senior clinician that to expect to see the results of their clinical audit reports was tantamount to a slur on their professional standing. Eventually a brave junior member of staff blew the whistle on this person. They were dismissed for gross misconduct, upheld on appeal. But despite a ton of evidence, their regulatory body decided to allow them to continue in clinical practice.
The point I am making is that it isn’t easy to be a whistleblower, nor is it straightforward to tackle poor practice. The law is loaded on the side of employee rather than the employer, rightly so, but in healthcare this can and does affect patients.
Initiatives like NHS Change Day are the antidote. They put patients and caring, committed, non-defensive staff where they belong, in the driving seat. Leaders, including patient leaders, set the direction and tone, patients and staff come up with the ideas, and managers support them to deliver these together. Those who object to the change being proposed have the opportunity to discuss it and put the alternative case forward. Ultimately, the majority will decide. Encouraging an open, enquiring culture that is always seeking to improve practice is the best possible way for the NHS to become safer and more compassionate for patients and the vast majority of staff.
It isn’t easy always to be open to change, but we should all be learning and improving continuously.
I’m leading the Time to Change initiative for NHS Change Day. This video explains why – the key bit is from 3 mins 20 seconds. I hope it explains why I feel so strongly about change and in particular, reducing the stigma of mental illness within the NHS.