Jeremy Hunt is Secretary of State for Health and MP for Surrey South-West.
The NHS is changing. The culture of secrecy is being eroded, patients are being put before targets and safe care is now the driving mission across the system.
Last week, during a speech at the inspirational, world-leading Virginia Mason hospital in Seattle, I announced a new campaign to confront the avoidable harm that still affects thousands of patients every year. The sign up to safety movement will see every part of our healthcare system commit to this goal – heart and soul, board to ward.
Every hospital Trust that chooses to join will commit to a new ambition: to reduce avoidable harm by a half, reduce the costs of harm by one half, and in doing so contribute to saving up to 6,000 lives nationally over the next three years. These are the deaths that could have been prevented – the medication error, the misdiagnosis or the infection acquired in hospital. While the percentages are low and the skill and endeavour of NHS stuff is undoubtedly high, we can never be satisfied with a system in which any patients die needlessly.
The first 12 vanguard hospitals signed up to the movement last week. Within the next few months I will write to every NHS organisation in England, inviting them to join and sign up to safety.
The campaign will recruit 5,000 safety champions as local change agents and experts. Support will be available from a new team, Safety Action For England, consisting of senior clinicians, managers and patients with a proven track record in tackling unsafe care – people frontline staff will respect, listen to and work with. They will ensure fast, flexible and intensive support when the line needs to be stopped and a lesson needs to be learned. A new statutory duty of candour on organisations, giving them a clear legal duty to tell patients when they have been harmed will be introduced. From June, a new safety website will allow the public to compare hospitals in England on a range of measures, including staffing levels.
By driving openness, raising standards and empowering patients, this government aims to prevent the appalling cases which confront us. We will establish our remarkable NHS as the safest healthcare system in the world. As well as being an ethical obligation for politicians on behalf of patients, prioritising safety is a financial imperative. Unsafe care is more, not less, expensive. Every year the NHS spends around £1.3 bn on litigation claims, money that could and should be spent on frontline staff.
This government has strong foundations on which to build. Our response to Francis and new inspection regime has driven a record number of nurses being recruited, meaning wards will have the nurses they need. Meanwhile hospital inspections have been virtually eradicated and hospital leaders report that quality of care has now become their top priority.
Patient champions and whistle-blowers, like Julie Bailey and Helene Donnelly who recently received honours for their courage and commitment, deserve our continued praise and support. The greatest honour this government can bestow on them is to ensure the cause which they set out on becomes a sweeping movement embraced by every part of our NHS.