ITV shows stark reality of what can happen in the NHS

A recent ITV drama, The Cure, was based on a shameful true scandal in the NHS, which led to a major investigation.

Laura (Hannah Rae), Bella (Sue Johnston) and Julie (Sian Brooke).The Cure was a feature-length TV drama telling the story of how Julie Bailey fought to expose one of the worst hospital care scandals, starting in 2007.  Stafford General Hospital failed her mother, Bella, in for a treatable hernia condition; she died in hospital, and this programme told the story of how the hospital failed her.

I shouldn’t be commenting on this programme as the script was so accurate I couldn’t bear to watch it all the way through. What I did see bought home horrendous hospital memories I thought I had buried.  Sadly, I could relate to so many incidents, documenting the appalling story of what can happen in the NHS.

Early in the programme came a telling scene highlighting where things were going wrong. The hospital’s Chief Executive informs the Board that they had managed to ‘save’ £10 million. Someone questioned this saving, but was soon over-ruled; targets were going to be more important than patients, as the hospital needed to ‘look good’ to apply for Foundation status.

What happened

Eight weeks after Bella arrived in hospital, she died, having been neglected, ignored, and treated abominably.  The character playing her daughter Julie says “I don’t expect royal treatment, just bxxxxy basic care”.  In harrowing detail, Bella Bailey’s ordeal showed just how far this elderly patient was bullied and failed by the system.

Bullying has been around for years, but in the ‘old days’ Sister was always present to put a stop to this.  Today Sisters are so busy filling out forms that they are trapped in offices;  last time I was in hospital, Sister sent a nurse to tell me I was to have a blood transfusion, and the poor child hadn’t got a clue about religious objections. I suspect Sister was busy dealing with staff shortages, NHS Targets and all the paper-work demanded by today’s NHS.

Bullies apart, ordinary staff ignore emergency calls from patients because they are overstretched, and don’t have enough time for everyone. They may have to leave patients in pain because they are busy with another emergency, which makes them seem callous and uncaring.

Staff are constantly having to short cut care because they are expected to work on ‘targets’.  Taken into A & E at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital after a major fall, Sue was told she was being sent for an X-ray.  She asked for pain relief, but was told shw would get that when the X-ray was over.  With seven broken bones she refused to be moved until she had pain relief, but this meant calling a doctor, which upset A & E’s ‘target’ times.

To make matters worse in The Cure, there seemed to be resistance to the family helping out.  When Julie discovers her mother is being woefully neglected, she tells the family they have to look after her.  This is the time when a sensible Ward Sister would have made Julie welcome and treated her as a colleague helping look after a patient. Instead the Bailey family were treated as outcasts.

I could relate to this, having discovered Chelsea and Westminster Hospital hadn’t fed my Mother for 24 hours (she was flat on her back with broken pelvis and arm).  So I was in the hospital from breakfast to supper, feeding her. Doctors said she was dehydrated, but when I tried to fill her empty water-jug I was told the kitchen was “staff only” .

We see Stafford Hospital through the family’s eyes, in addition to the perspective of compassionate nurse Helene, who was instructed to prioritise hospital targets over patient care. This meant wards were dirty; patients left in soiled sheets, and Julie witnessed an elderly and dehydrated patient attempting to drink water from a flower vase.

Stark picture

The drama showed colostomy bags littering the floor; other telling touches painted a picture of neglect – but supposedly cleaners had been axed.  Oxygen was in short supply (the £10 million could have bought more canisters), but the hospital was determined to win Foundation status. Somehow, in all the paperwork, the fact that the hospital’s mortality rates were said to be 40% higher than normal didn’t register with any of the many NHS quangos set up to ensure this doesn’t happen.

Perhaps the solution is for more and better Patient involvement?  Patients would surely have asked in Board meetings why the mortality rate was so high?  As David Gilbert in his book ‘The Patient Revolution‘, asks “Could the solution to NHS problems be in the hands of the patients themselves?“.

Should we blame the staff?

I don’t think so. I am certain that appalling treatment comes because (as was shown in the film) staff had been set targets by a bullying management, and were frightened for their jobs if they missed these. So targets were the priority, rather than patient care.

When nurses are over-worked because there aren’t enough to handle even basic needs, care is bound to suffer.  If you are looking after too many patients, you don’t have time to answer a bell, change a colostomy bag, or dress a pressure sore.  You know patients need better care, but you can’t make up for non-existent staff – something has to give.

You can blame the recruitment process and ward supervision for Bullying, but the only people who should be blamed when patients aren’t receiving adequate care is Administrators.  It’s not the staff’s fault if Call bells go un-answered, elderly patients aren’t fed, or no-one has time to change a dressing. The NHS should stop deluding itself that it is “the envy of the world”.

And I find that senior staff are replaced by juniors (saving money?)  Bella had been dropped on the floor by a healthcare assistant (why was someone so junior doing a transfer?), and even left without oxygen.  What horriies me is that it seems staff are bullied too. Discussing the drama with a nursing friend, she told me she had been bullied for years …”but  I needed the job…. ……compassion has gone and, especially older patients are often treated without respect and compassion”.

“Lessons have been learned”

This is a stock phrase trotted out by the NHS whenever anything major goes wrong.  Recently, the phrase was repeated after a major ‘incident’ at Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital –  see https://aftercancers.com/nhs-say-lessons-have-been-learnt-really/

Cure the NHS

Soon after her mother’s death, Julie launched Cure the NHS, seeking out those with similar experiences to her own. The ‘CuretheNHS’ campaign, and the resulting media scrutiny, eventually revealed that the hospital trust had been prioritising performance levels and statistics at the expense of patient care and hundreds of lives. Julie’s efforts resulted in a public inquiry that yielded 290 recommendations safeguarding patient safety.

In 2016 Cure the NHS issued a statement welcoming “the publication of the A&E guideline and particularly the fact that the committee clearly supported the idea of minimum nurse to patient ratios as being the best route to protect patients and provide high standards of care. We would urge all NHS trusts to consider and act on this guideline in the interests of their patients.
As a group we remain shocked and concerned that the Government and NHS England suspended NICE’s work on safe nurse staffing, a key recommendation of the Francis report that we fought so hard for.
As Julie commented, “Safe staffing and correct nurse to patient ratios are essential to ensure patients do not suffer as our relatives did at Mid Staffordshire”.

I really feel for Julie – after her incredible campaigning, along comes another massive scandal at Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital.  Lessons obviously have NOT been learned; in fact the NHS doesn’t seem to have learned anything.
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