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Patient Safety

Volume 638: debated on Wednesday 28 March 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mike Freer.)

Before I begin my speech, I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

Doctors become doctors to help make people better. Patient safety and improving patient care are therefore at the forefront of every doctor’s practice. Indeed, when I went for my consultant interview, I was asked to give a presentation on how I would demonstrate to the trust board that paediatric services in that hospital were safe, and my answer, of course, was, “How safe?” As safe as going to a football match? As safe as travelling on the tube? As safe as flying in an aeroplane? Those activities are safe, but, like patient care, nothing is ever 100% safe. We need to ensure that care is as safe as it possibly can be, and that there are processes in place to learn from mistakes. No party has a monopoly on wanting to make the NHS as good as it can be, and all of us know that the increasing demand and complexity would make healthcare a challenge for any Government.

During my career, there have been significant improvements in patient safety, the most important of which is probably the establishment in 2009 of the Care Quality Commission, with its Ofsted-like reports. By 2017, it had inspected every trust, primary care and adult social care provider, and it continues to ensure they are meeting the highest standards. We now also have the regular revalidation of professionals, reflective practice and case reviews, as well as child death overview panels, which review in detail all unexpected child deaths. New maternity systems have been developed that have resulted in clear progress, as seen in the 20% fall in the stillbirth and neonatal mortality rate in England between 2003 and 2013.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does she agree that the changes to and strengthening of the CQC’s remit through the Health and Social Care (Safety and Quality) Act 2015, a private Member’s Bill passed with all-party support, represent one step on the long road to ensuring that patient safety and quality care is at the top of the NHS’s agenda?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on passing that private Member’s Bill, which has undoubtedly saved many lives.

I am proud to work in a health service that, just last year, was rated the best and safest healthcare system in the world by the independent Commonwealth Fund think-tank. To err is human: we all make mistakes. The consequences of a doctor’s error, though, are potentially catastrophic. Doctors live with that responsibility and, as a doctor, I live in fear of making a mistake because I do not wish for anyone to suffer harm.

My hon. Friend may have seen that the Medical Protection Society is asking for the bar to be lifted on criminal proceedings and for the General Medical Council to be shaken up a bit to improve its approach to dealing with this issue. Does she have any sympathy with that?

I will come on to that later, but I agree with my hon. Friend.

I have worked with at least two colleagues who made significant errors. Many lessons were learned and widely disseminated. Training was provided to stop recurrence, but neither doctor was prosecuted. Throughout my career it has been the case that, if a doctor does their best but makes a genuine error, they will not face criminal charges. Gross negligence manslaughter was seen to be an appropriate sanction for the doctor who refuses to see a patient, who turns up intoxicated or who deliberately does something wrong. That facilitates a no-blame or airline safety-style culture, promoted by the Secretary of State, in which errors are identified and continuous improvements are made.

Following the case of Dr Bawa-Garba, that safety culture and those improvements to patient care are now in jeopardy. Although she was newly back from maternity leave, had not received induction, was covering two people’s jobs, had inexperienced junior staff to supervise and had reduced consultant cover, a very busy unit and a broken IT results system to contend with, Dr Bawa-Garba was convicted of gross negligence manslaughter and, more recently, struck off the medical register by the GMC. Those events followed the very sad and tragic death of a little boy, which of course saddens all of us in this House and is something from which his family will never truly recover.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular case, many professionals have seen sufficient ambiguity in the decision that Dr Bawa-Garba was criminally culpable that it has shaken their confidence that they understand the boundary between a genuine error of medical judgment and conduct so exceptionally bad that it amounts to criminal behaviour. It has, in the words of the chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners,

“shaken the entire medical community”.

Although the GMC is an independent organisation, the Government will be aware of concerns raised about its decision making on this case. Perhaps the most high-profile concern was raised earlier this month at the local medical committees conference, where GP leaders passed a vote of no confidence in the GMC. I would be grateful if the Minister elaborated on what the Government are doing in their work with the GMC to ensure it is executing its functions correctly and to restore medical and public confidence in it.

It is right that individuals are held accountable for their actions, but there is always a balance to be struck between accountability and blame. Where the balance is tipped towards blame, individuals become fearful and may attempt to cover their mistakes, preventing them and others from learning; the same errors will therefore be repeated. Since the case of Dr Bawa-Garba, many doctors have become fearful. That culture of fear means that some doctors are being advised to anonymise reflective practice and to avoid uploading those reflective practices on to their e-portfolio. They might unnecessarily escalate decisions previously undertaken themselves or refuse to do more than contracted. That cannot be good for patient safety.

This issue is not just the preserve of doctors; it, of course, cuts across all health professionals. One of the biggest triggers is the pressure that NHS staff are put under, particularly in respect of their not being able to fulfil their duty of care. Does the hon. Lady recognise that when we have a staff crisis it creates the biggest risk to patients?

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, and I agree that this issue of accountability and blame applies equally to all professionals across the health service. Everyone makes mistakes; I was reading online the incident report for the serious investigation done into this young boy’s death and I noticed that, although no doubt all care and attention had been paid to ensuring that personal information was redacted, the child’s initials appeared in at least one place where someone had forgotten to do that. That is a sign that none of us is ever infallible.

Sanctioning doctors for honest mistakes also runs the risk of discouraging people from joining the profession. At a time when the Government are looking to increase the number of people entering medical careers, through the creation of more places at universities and the establishment of new medical schools, the perception that an honest mistake made later in someone’s medical career could end up with their being struck off the register, or even behind bars, risks alienating just the type of young, forward-thinking, ambitious students whom the NHS needs to pursue a career in medicine. It is a testament to the youth of today that medicine still continues to attract the brightest and the best. However, by the same token, these straight-A students have other, more lucrative career paths open to them, and those will become all the more attractive when the risks inherent in a medical career become too high.

This culture of fear not only risks discouraging people from joining the profession, but drives away highly skilled doctors already working in the NHS. As an NHS doctor, one is already expected to work in very challenging conditions, working long hours in an incredibly high-pressure environment. Again, if a perception develops among doctors that they may be treated as a criminal even if when working to the best of their ability, it will quite simply drive doctors away. The world-renowned medical schools we have here in the UK mean that British doctors are in high demand, and they may take their skills to the private sector or further afield to less litigious health services.

The Government recognise these problems and have commissioned an urgent review to look at the threshold for what constitutes gross negligence. This will report by the end of April. I understand that the GMC has also commissioned its own review, although it is not expected to report until the end of the year. Will the Minister tell the House how the Government will act in the meantime to reassure doctors, especially those in high-risk specialties such as paediatrics and obstetrics, that they will not be unduly punished for mistakes?

Overall, it is important that the Government act swiftly on the findings of this report, and consider carefully the impact of the threshold on both the recruitment and retention of medical staff, and safety and improvements to patient care. Doctors want to make people better—it drives all they do. We must stand with them and for them, for all our futures will depend on it.

I wish to start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) on securing this really important debate on patient safety. All patients have a right to expect care that is compassionate, effective and safe. The courageous testimonies of individuals such as Julie Bailey, who exposed the scandalous failings at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, and Sara Ryan, who campaigned fearlessly following the death of her son, Connor Sparrowhawk, while in the so-called care of Southern Health, show that safer care starts with listening to patients and their families.

It is important that we recognise that there are many victims when care fails—the families and the loved ones, of course, but also the healthcare professionals who carry the burden of their mistakes. The great majority of NHS patients receive effective and successful care. However, according to international studies, levels of healthcare harm range from 1% for the most “negligent” adverse events, to 8% to 9% for preventable adverse events. We are clear that any level of harm over 0% is unacceptable, and we believe that the route to a safer NHS is through transparency, learning and action. What is most frustrating is when harm persists, despite our having the knowledge and wherewithal to prevent it. There are approximately nine “never events” in the NHS every week—avoidable harms such as wrong-site surgery or foreign objects left after an operation.

Thirty years ago, the aviation industry stood at a similar crossroads. Since then, there has been a massive reduction in fatal accidents every decade, despite a huge increase in the number of passengers. According to the Civil Aviation Authority, there is an average of one fatality for every 287 million passengers carried by UK operators. Compare that with the 150 avoidable deaths every week across the NHS. That rate would potentially equate to the loss of 52 airliners per year.

How has the airline industry transformed its safety record so successfully? The key has been a “just culture” that recognises honest human error, but continues to hold people to account for criminal acts or wilful negligence. Creating a safe space that protects the evidence provided by pilots and air traffic controllers when there is an investigation is a cornerstone of the approach. It helps to create a culture in which people can be open about their errors and a system of learning from one’s mistakes, rather than blaming individuals.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) on securing this debate on an important matter. NHS staff are greatly restricted by their work and the long hours they do. We all know that and pay tribute to them. Sometimes, however, we have to look at better ways of keeping records and at innovations to streamline things to make sure that the real focus of NHS staff is on the work that they do. Has the Minister looked at streamlining and innovations to take away the red tape that restricts the caring job that NHS staff do?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The more we can innovate and put in place the technology that helps to streamline day-to-day processes, the more that will help NHS staff, who do such a marvellous job, to do their job even more effectively and efficiently.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham rightly said, to err is human. I am told that every year, 30,000 motorists put diesel fuel into their petrol cars—that is around 15 every hour. Those people are not intentionally destructive or feckless, they are human. Of course, I am not making an analogy with medical mistakes, which can be significantly more damaging and life-changing than the need to get a new engine, but in the same sort of way we need to move away from a blame culture in health—away from investigations that single out one individual rather than seeing their actions in the context of a complex overarching system.

Robert Francis’s report included 290 recommendations to address these issues, not the least the duty of candour. However, people are still fearful to report—why is that?

I think it is for a variety of reasons. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that issue; if she bears with me, I shall come to it a little later.

A first step in our new direction, based on an aviation model, is the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch, which became fully operational in April last year and will independently investigate some of the most serious patient safety incidents every year. It is the first investigatory body of its kind in the world and demonstrates our commitment to learning and innovation. As part of the Government’s drive to make the NHS the safest place in the world to give birth, HSIB will standardise investigations of cases of unexplained severe brain injury, intrapartum stillbirths, early neonatal deaths and maternal deaths in England.

As an MP who represents a constituency in the area served by Southern Health, I am particularly aware that tragedy can spiral when an organisation loses sight of systematic problems in its provision of care. Our Learning from Deaths programme is a direct response to such events. Trusts are now expected to have proper arrangements for learning from the deaths of patients and are subject to new reporting arrangements, including evidence of learning and improvements. I should add that we are one of the first countries in the world to measure deaths in this way. Through Learning from Deaths, NHS England is supporting improved engagement across the NHS with bereaved families and carers.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham rightly says, healthcare professionals need to feel safe to speak out about problems in the workplace. To support that, we have introduced an independent national officer for whistleblowing, and new regulations to prevent discrimination against whistleblowers who move jobs. Recent commentary in the media and among professionals has highlighted a possible brake on openness and transparency arising from high profile convictions of healthcare professionals for gross negligence manslaughter, which is exactly the same example as the one that she cited. That is why the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care announced in February that he was asking Professor Sir Norman Williams, former President of the Royal College of Surgeons, to conduct a rapid review into the application of gross negligence manslaughter in healthcare.

Absorbing the review’s recommendations into our healthcare system will be crucial to ensure that our healthcare professionals feel valued and secure, and that includes the GMC. The deadline for submitting evidence is April, and I encourage patients, families and professionals to contribute.

It is essential that infants have the best possible start in life, and the safety of mothers and their babies is a fundamental starting point for safer care. In November 2017, the Secretary of State announced his intention to bring forward the ambition to halve the rate of maternal deaths, neonatal deaths, birth-related brain injuries and stillbirths by 2025—a full five years ahead of our previous target. Pre-term birth is a major health inequality with mothers, and the Secretary of State has set an ambitious target to reduce the national rate of pre-term births from 8% to 6%.

Continuity of care is a key factor in a healthy pregnancy. Evidence shows that women who continue to receive care from the same midwives are 19% less likely to miscarry, and 16% less likely to lose their baby. That is why, yesterday, the Secretary of State announced important steps towards ensuring that the majority of women receive care from the same small team of midwives throughout their pregnancy, labour and birth by 2021. That announcement includes 650 new training places for midwives in 2019, which represents a 25% increase in the number of midwives in the UK.

We can never be complacent. Zero harm might sound impossible to achieve, but it should always be our aim. By learning lessons when things go wrong, listening to patients and their families, and working across the whole system to create a genuine culture of improvement, this Government are making a significant and lasting contribution to patient safety.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.