Thursday, 31 October 2013

Nursing the NHS back to health

Twitter and Facebook have worked overtime since my previous post,  NHS Care for Disabled Children, and I've learnt so much more about what's wrong with everything, not just the NHS, but Public Sector working generally. So many people have joined the discussions, from all corners of the issue, and all passionately concerned about the current problems facing the NHS. Old, young, nurses, doctors, patients, parents of young children, chidren of older parents, it has been fascinating. If only we could find a way to harness all the good ideas, and pull together to make it work as brilliantly as it deserves to. 

It seems like the NHS is running on fear, from the very bottom to the very top, all the way to the Central Government, who are probably frightened too,  maybe of spending too much money on it, and of being voted out by the rest of us if they mess it up to much. Fear makes people close ranks, become defensive and terrified of being blamed for any error, no matter how small. Subsequently, mistakes get swept under carpets, and anyone, staff or patient or relative, that lifts that carpet up and points it out, is going to become massively unpopular among those who are frightened of the repercussions. 

So the best thing is to just pretend nothing wrong ever happens. Whitewash it away, don't listen, perpetuate the myth that everything is just fabulous. We've allowed the NHS to develop an "Emperor's New Clothes" syndrome. Every section of the NHS is so complaint-averse that unless we are all prepared to happily sing from the same songsheet that everything's rosy, we will be pushed out in the cold, ostracised, scapegoated and ignored. I know from bitter experience that this happens to patients and relatives, but until very recently, I had no idea it also applies to staff, even very senior staff. 

How does an organisation even begin to improve if it isn't prepared to look at itself with a critical eye, and encourage its staff to do the same in a "how can be do even better" kind of way? Where is the Customer Service approach? Most commercial organisations would encourage whistleblowers to expose colleagues who are working against the best interests of the organisation. 

Decent, hardworking, committed, caring healthcare professionals, the overwhelming majority of the NHS workforce, sometimes feel they are being effectively silenced and marginalised, and are struggling to be allowed to do their jobs to the best of their ability with integrity and professionalism. Thank goodness for them, it is because of them that most of the NHS delivers excellent, life-saving care in a way that makes us all proud and humbled. 

My own experience of cancer treatment over the past 18 months has been a really good example of this. Amazingly caring, committed staff all pulling together to ensure I consistently get the very best of treatment, delivered in a holistically caring manner, with nothing too much trouble along the way. I really couldn't ask for anymore, and had this been my only experience of the NHS at work, I would be blissfully ignorant of any problems, and protectively defensive about anyone who had the audacity to fault it in any way whatsoever.

However, when criticism is silenced, a situation can develop where the very worst of human characteristics can thrive and grow; bullying, intimidation, cruelty, dishonesty and worse. The world needs whistleblowers to keep standards high, particularly in the caring professions, but who on earth would be brave enough to raise their head over the parapet in this environment? There are luckily many very courageous people, but it seems that some have had to pay far too high a price for speaking the truth.

Until this bullying and intimidation is sorted out throughout the organisation at root and branch level, and a new climate of openness and acceptance of human error is encouraged, the NHS is likely to remain in its chronically ill state.

Partly, as well, I feel a finger needs to be pointed at the recent revolution in education. In my previous post, I suggested that perhaps the university training of our nurses is focussing on the academic rather than the caring element of their role. Many nurses have, quite rightly, pointed out to me that we need our nurses to be educated to the highest of levels if we are to consistently improve standards. 

Thirty years ago, though, education was as much about weeding out unsuitable candidates as imparting the correct skills to the next generation of nurses. Nursing training was undertaken by individual hospitals, so there was a responsibility to ensure that all nurses who would carry their hospital training badge into other settings would maintain that hospital's good reputation. This meant that there was an accountability, a real incentive to instil qualities of care and integrity as well as competence alone. 

Recently, not just in nursing, but universally among many training establishments, we have changed the emphasis to ensure as many people as possible pass their courses. Universities and colleges are financially penalised rather than rewarded for drop-out rates, and skills are often assessed in isolation, out of context of performing these skills in a spirit of care and compassion. This means that the trainees who would have been singled-out as unsuitable for their chosen profession in the past and asked to leave the course, are now able to sail on through unhindered towards a profession that really doesn't need them onboard. 

When my children were very young, we were on the circuit for trainee nurses to spent two weeks at home with us as part of their training, shortly after the Project 2000 university style of training had been launched. Over a period of a couple of years, we had about 15 or so girls spend time with us; Toby was profoundly disabled with complex medical issues, and I also had two other under fives, so we were a very good environment for them to learn about nursing in the community, and I really valued the extra pair of hands. Most of the girls (not being sexist, we just weren't sent any young men!) were excellent, enormously helpful, hands on and just about wonderful. Only one let all the others down. One day, Toby was extremely ill and needed my total attention. Another child needed an urgent nappy-change. This young lady was sprawled on my sofa reading a book at the time. I asked her to change the nappy, she replied that she didn't need to thanks, because had I forgotten she'd changed one yesterday so I'd already signed it off in her Skills Assessment Checklist.

I talked to her tutor about the incident, who seemed completely unbothered, and suggested that we don't document it in her records because that might bring her overall marks down a bit, which might affect her degree award. Once upon a time, behaviour of this nature would have had a Ward Sister reading her the riot act.  

It must be about 15 years since this particular young lady qualified, and I often wonder if she, together with her appalling attitude, is climbing the ranks towards the top of the NHS management structure. 

What's also been interesting about the debate since I last wrote is that it's not just the NHS. I've heard stories about education authorities, social workers, housing departments and countless other statutory bodies that would make your hair stand on end. I've got plenty of these stories about both schooling and social care myself, but as I hear more and more with a similar theme I'm beginning to see that while the NHS can be an easy target because we all use it nationally, within local authorities ordinary people are being intimidated and bullied too by the very people paid by the public to serve the very public they are abusing. 

The best bits of the past couple of weeks have undoubtedly been the Facebook chats with other mothers of disabled children. We have mostly developed a very gallows form of humour to cope with our challenges, and the more we exchanged the funnier it became, until we virtually had an entire script for a sitcom that included polishing shovels to bury dead professionals in the garden while our "service users" are "accessing the community" that wants to pretend they aren't really there, and I'm busy dropping dead with cancer in the next 10 minutes too. You probably had to be there to really appreciate it, but it had dozens of us howling with laughter and it just went on for days. 

Tomorrow I'm off on a 3 day bootcamp, to learn how to write and publish a book, or several, and I really can't wait. Not sure if I'll have the stamina to keep going for three whole days including the commute up to London there and back each day, but sometimes you just have to find a way to do the things that you really want to do, and blow the consequences. 

That's one thing I've learnt since this cancer of mine has spread to Stage IV. Time is so precious, I don't know how much more I've got, and if I'm going to write a few bestsellers, and a Miranda sitcom, and sort out the NHS, our education system and every single social worker in the country too, while still finding time for good friends and a lot of laughter, I'd better get my skates on and jfdi. 

Wish me luck!


  1. You put us all to shame!!! Amazing lady :)

  2. Benedicte, absolutely not!!! But thank you for saying so! Look at everything you do, you leave the rest of we mere mortals standing. xxx

  3. Yvonne, you have spelled out much of the health system's issues so well...and now you're off to writer boot camp, after all you've been coping with :)
    Love to you xox
    Sharon, Ottawa, ON, Canada xox

    1. Thank you Sharon. Boot camp was fabulous, I feel so energised and upbeat after it, it was like food for the soul, and I also met some really genuine people too. Hope all's good with you. Yvonne xxx

  4. I met this extraordinary lady at the Authors' Bootcamp over the weekend. Not only did she attend all 3 days, she inspired me with her story and most of all, her outstanding stamina and courage. Yvonne you are a shining light. Looking forward to the book :). Much love xxx

  5. Penny, thank you so much for your lovely, kind comments. I'm really pleased we met, and you made the whole weekend so much more fun. Also, I know if you shared your story there would be a queue of people, myself included, racing to say some pretty awesome things about your tenacity and courage too. Speak soon, it would be great to keep in touch xxx