12 NHS hospitals at centre of safety scandal

The true scandal of NHS hospitals failing to comply with basic safety standards is revealed. 
Research that ranks every general hospital in England against a range of safety measures has named 12 NHS hospital trusts judged to be “significantly underperforming”.

This is despite the fact that last month the Care Quality Commission, the health service regulator, judged overall care at eight of the trusts to be good or excellent. Today’s study by Dr Foster, an NHS partner organisation that collates and analyses healthcare data, also highlights 27 trusts with unusually high death rates. Almost 5,000 more patients in their care died in the past year than was expected.

Revelations of such widespread safety failings will send shockwaves through the NHS, already reeling from scandals at two trusts last week. Poor nursing care, filthy wards and hundreds of unnecessary deaths were exposed at Basildon and Thurrock University NHS Hospitals Foundation Trust, and the chair of the NHS trust in Colchester was fired.

Now the new data proves that key safety failings are occurring in 11 more hospital trusts across England. They include Scarborough and North East Yorkshire Healthcare Trust, South London Healthcare Trust, Weston Area Health Trust, Hereford Hospitals Trust, Lewisham Hospital Trust and University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire Trust. Eighteen were found to have death rates the same or higher than at Colchester. Ministers want to know why seven in particular have had persistently high death rates over five years.

The Department of Health yesterday ordered the CQC to investigate if any other trusts needed urgent attention. The CQC said it was “monitoring closely a number of other trusts”, but had no evidence there was another case in England where it would take action of the kind taken at Basildon.

John Black, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, last night told the Observer that patient safety had been neglected by hospitals too busy meeting NHS-imposed financial targets: “Too many hospitals are too concerned with meeting financial targets at the expense of clinical standards, and we are seeing patients suffering as a consequence.”

Today’s research exposes systemic failures in large parts of the NHS during the last financial year and finds:
¦ 39% of trusts failing to investigate unexpected deaths or cases of serious harm on their wards.
¦ At least 209 incidents in which “foreign objects”, such as swabs and drill-bits, were left inside patients after surgery.
¦ At least 82 cases in which medical staff operated on the wrong part of the patient’s body.

It finds that 5,024 people died after being admitted for “low-risk” conditions such as asthma or appendicitis, of whom 848 were under 65. A proportion of those deaths will be linked to safety errors.

The Conservatives reacted by promising a complete overhaul of the regulation system, which rated Basildon “good” only weeks ago. Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary, said: “Labour’s failed health inspection regime is more interested in targets than patients.” 

He also questioned the timing of the Basildon announcement. Officials knew of the hospital’s failings weeks ago but decided to publicise them last Thursday, just days before the Dr Foster research was due to be published in the Observer.

The study paints a picture of large variations in the hospital standardised mortality ratio, a measure used by Dr Foster. The measure, which was used last week by Monitor, the regulator for NHS foundation trusts, looks at the likelihood of individual patients dying, given their underlying condition, age and economic background, then compares that to the actual number of deaths.

Cynthia Bower, the CQC’s chief executive, said improvements had been made, but added: “The NHS cannot stand still on safety. It must be able to look the public in the eye and say safety is top priority for the leadership of every NHS trust in the country – no ifs and no buts.”

Roger Taylor, from Dr Foster, responded: “We have used the most credible available data to assess patient safety. CQC ratings are not designed to just assess patient safety and instead use broader indicators, including measures of effectiveness and patient experience. The hospital guide is focused on patient safety, and mortality ratios are used alongside other indicators.”



Failing hospital condemns hundreds to death

Hundreds of patients died at an NHS hospital after suffering appalling standards of care, a report has found.

Poor nursing, filthy wards and lack of leadership at Basildon and Thurrock University NHS Hospitals Foundation Trust contributed to 400 avoidable deaths in a year.

Death rates at the Essex trust were a third higher than they should have been, said the Care Quality Commission, the health care watchdog.

Among the worst failings were a lack of basic nursing skills, curtains spattered with blood on wards, mould in vital equipment and patients being left in A&E; for up to 10 hours.

Concerns about death rates at the foundation hospital trust were first raised a year ago, but an internal investigation failed to find anything wrong and senior managers dismissed the concerns.

But the new external report found “systematic failings” in the trust’s senior management team, who are still in their jobs. The CQC said its confidence in the management’s ability had been “severely dented”.

The watchdog’s report follows an investigation earlier this year into Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, which found similar problems, with up to 1,200 avoidable deaths.

Ministers assured patients at the time that it was an isolated incident. The failures at Basildon will raise concerns that similar problems are widespread in the NHS.

Among the CQC’s other findings were the avoidable deaths of four patients with learning disabilities; a lack of children’s nurses and doctors in A&E; a failure to feed patients properly or give medication correctly; and a high rate of bedsores among elderly patients. Concerns about standards at Basildon were raised as long ago as 2001, when the Royal College of Nursing described conditions there as “Third World” because of a shortage of beds. Since then the hospital has suffered a series of health scares and accusations of negligence.

The CQC report has been passed on to Monitor, the organisation in charge of foundation hospital trusts.

A statement by Monitor said there had been a “significant breach” by Basildon and a task force of experts would be sent into the trust.

Monitor has the power to replace the trust’s management but it was understood last night that none of the board members had been threatened with dismissal.

Katherine Murphy, the director of the Patients Association said: “Yet again patients are being neglected. Lack of monitoring, lack of help with feeding, lack of dignity, avoidable pressure sores. How many times do the public need to keep hearing about this before the Government is embarrassed enough to do something about it?

“We’re sick and tired of NHS managers and senior staff walking away unscathed when families are left with a life sentence of grief.”

Basildon was one of the country’s first foundation trusts in 2004, meaning it was given more freedom over its spending and did not have to answer to ministers. Mid-Staffordshire was also a foundation trust, raising concerns that the system is failing. It also emerged that Basildon was the first foundation trust to be issued with a warning notice about poor infection control earlier this month over hygiene in its A&E; department and contamination of medical equipment.

The trust, which has a budget of £250 million and more than 700 beds at its main hospital in Basildon, has repeatedly pledged to improve but failed to do so, the CQC said.

Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary, said: “I am extremely disturbed by this news and the effect that these shocking conditions may have had on patients. It is unforgivable if any lives have been needlessly lost.

“When the appalling standards of care at Stafford Hospital were revealed, we were assured by Labour ministers that it was ‘an isolated case’ — that sort of complacency is simply not good enough.”

Andy Burnham, the Health Secretary, has proposed a change in the law to allow trusts to be stripped of foundation status if they fail.

The CQC had been aware of problems at Basildon for more than a year and was in contact with managers to correct the situation. Repeat inspections found no improvement. From next April, the CQC can take action, including fines, and, if necessary, closures of departments or the whole hospital. Cynthia Bower, the watchdog’s chief executive, said: “We want to act swiftly at Basildon to nip problems in the bud, working closely with other regulators. The trust has taken our concerns seriously but improvements are simply not happening fast enough.

“Our confidence in the management’s ability to deliver on commitments and to turn the situation around has been severely dented.”


Swine flu deaths in England reach highest level

Deaths from the swine flu pandemic in England rose to their highest peak yet last week, new figures have shown.

The number of confirmed deaths for the week ended November 26 were 21, three higher than the week before and two higher than the previous high a fortnight ago.

However at the same time the overall number of people catching swine flu in England fell to an estimated 46,000 new cases in the last week, 7,000 less than the week before.

There has also been a drop in the number of people in hospital, from 783 to 753.

A total of 154 of those being cared for are in intensive care.

The figures are dropping so low that the government said that it was reviewing its online and telephone flu service with a view to withdrawing it after Christmas.

Sir Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer for England, said that the number of people who have had swine flu or died means the current pandemic is comparable with a normal winter flu season.

But he said: “If you look at the levels you would say they are comparable with a winter flu outbreak but a winter flu outbreak does not kill young people and does not take under-fives into hospital and intensive care on this scale.”

Meanwhile more than a million people at high risk from swine flu have been vaccinated, according to Government estimates.

About a million people in England and thousands more in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have received their jab in the first month of the programme.

GPs are currently vaccinating people at risk – such as those with asthma, heart disease and diabetes – before moving on to the under-fives.

The number of deaths in England now stands at 163 and the UK total stands at 242, up from 214 last week.

Sir Liam said the one million figure did not include health care workers, who have also been having the vaccine.

One million is about one in 10 of all the people in at-risk groups who are being offered the vaccine.

So far, 10 million doses of the jab have been sent out to GP surgeries, primary care trusts and acute hospitals in England.

A total of 14 million doses of the vaccine Pandemrix have been delivered to the Government, with another 2.3 million doses of Celvapan also delivered.


Drug use in the City still a real problem

The use of alcohol and cocaine remains rife among City workers in spite of rising unemployment and lower wages following the credit crunch, leading physicians involved in the treatment of drug abusing professionals have warned.

Neil Brenner, medical director of Priory psychiatric hospital in north London, told the Financial Times that the number of bankers coming to him for treatment had risen significantly over the past three years, even when taking account of a large dip after the onset of the financial crisis in 2008. “I still think this is a real problem in the City,” Dr Brenner said.

Earlier, Dr Brenner told MPs on the parliamentary home affairs committee that people working in financial services were more likely to run into problems with powdered cocaine abuse than other elements of society.

“They often have a high-pressure job and will often start using it not so much as a reward system but as a way to keep themselves going,” he said.

Recent Home Office figures show that Britons are the biggest consumers of cocaine in Europe, with 1m people estimated to have taken the drug in the past year. About 12,000 people are being treated for their use of powdered cocaine.

Dr Brenner said the cocaine problem affected all echelons of the financial services industry, “from the chief executive all the way down to the postroom”.

Nick Barton, chief executive of the Action on Addiction charity, which also runs treatment centres for addicts, agreed that he had seen “no kind of decrease” in the number of City cocaine users approaching his organisation for help. “This problem hasn’t disappeared,” he added.

The recent financial crisis might have added to the pressure on bank workers to use narcotics to lift productivity, Mr Barton said. “If people are going to have to work that much harder, cocaine will have its appeal as both an aide and a recreational tool,” he said.

But the medical experts also said alcohol abuse remained a far greater problem among the professions than any other substance.


Nanny state wants NHS to provide free marriage guidance

Couples are to be offered marriage guidance counselling for free on the NHS, in a move which has drawn strong condemnation from patients and doctors’ groups.

Couples with relationship problems will be offered free sessions for up to six months, as part of a £270 million programme to increase the provision of “talking therapies” for the public, Andy Burnham, the health secretary, announced.

Doctors and patients’ groups said they were “horrified” by the use of NHS resources for relationship advice when patients with cancer and dementia were being denied treatment they desperately needed.

Currently, most people seeking help from services like Relate pay between £45 and £60 per session, meaning the free counselling packages will be worth around £1,000 per couple.

The NHS is expected to have to pay existing marriage guidance services, and newly-trained counsellors to provide the therapy.

Doctors and patients groups last night attacked the recommendation, contained in guidance by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). NICE has repeatedly come under fire for decisions to reject life-extending drugs for cancer and treatment to reduce symptoms of dementia.

On Thursday, NICE was accused by charities of “condemning patients” to an early death by rejecting the use of Nexavar, a drug which can extend the lives of liver cancer, arguing that its £9 million annual cost – £3,000 a month per patient – could not be justified.

Nick James, professor of clinical oncology at the Cancer Research UK Institute for Cancer Studies said: “I am horrified, in particular because of the way these decisions are taken without public debate.

“I think most people would say treatment for those who are sick with cancer should be top of our list, and I would really question whether these kinds of efforts to preserve marriages are a matter for the state.”

NICE has previously restricted the use of drugs to limit the effects of Alzheimer’s, costing £2 a day, while provoking further controversy in May when it ruled in favour of alternative therapies like acupuncture for back pain, despite admitting there was little evidence they worked.

Michael Summers, Vice-President of the Patients Association, urged NICE and the Government to “get their priorities right”. If we had the luxury of untold sums of money, maybe we would think about paying for couples counselling,” he said.

“As things stand, people are still waiting for urgent treatment, being denied drugs for cancer, and dementia, and it seems inappropriate at the very least to start using public money in this way”.


Winter NHS deaths rise a national scandal

The highest winter NHS deaths figures in almost 10 years should act as a “deafening wake-up call” for the labour Government, charities said today.

There were an extra 36,700 deaths in England and Wales from December 2008 to March 2009, compared with the average for non-winter periods, figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed.

This was the highest number since the winter of 1999/2000 and a rise of 49% compared with 2007/08.

Andrew Harrop, head of policy at Age Concern and Help the Aged, said: “It is a national scandal that the UK has more older people dying in winter, compared to the rest of the year, than countries with more severe weather, such as Sweden and Finland.

“Excess winter deaths of older people have remained stubbornly high in recent years, but last winter’s huge spike sounds a deafening wake-up call about the older population’s well-being if we have another cold snap.

“To end this national scandal, the Government must do much more to tackle fuel poverty, which currently affects one in three older households.”

Fuel poverty charity National Energy Action (NEA) warned that a combination of high energy prices, low incomes and poor insulation will continue to pose a serious threat to the health of millions of people, especially pensioners, during the coming months.

Jenny Saunders, NEA chief executive, said: “The Government needs to step up action that will end these shameful statistics and comprehensibly tackle fuel poverty in the UK.”

The winter of 2008/9 had the coldest average winter temperature since 2005/6, one of the factors which affects the number of so-called excess winter deaths, an ONS spokesman said.

He added that the Health Protection Agency (HPA) said influenza activity started early and reached moderate levels during the winter of 2008/9.

Temperature and levels of disease in the population are two of the key factors which contribute to the number of deaths.

The greatest number of excess winter deaths occurred in people aged over 85, the ONS figures showed.

Women accounted for the highest number of excess winter deaths, a fact mostly explained by the higher number of women than men aged over 85, the ONS said.

There were 21,400 excess winter deaths in women and 15,300 in men in the winter of 2008/9, the ONS said.

But the largest increase – 59% – was in men aged 75 to 84, with the overall rate for men 44% higher than the previous year.

Among women, the overall rate increased by 52% compared with 2007/8.

A Department of Health (DH) spokesman said: “The causes of excess winter deaths are very complex. Last year was a colder than average winter, which explains some of the extra deaths seen.

The NEA called for an extension of the winter fuel payments “to include other vulnerable households and not just those who are over 60”.

It also urged the Government to increase the budget for the Warm Front Scheme – which provides a package of insulation and heating improvements up to the value of £3,500 – to £530 million next year.

Ms Saunders said: “As it stands, the budget for 2010 is set to be cut back by around 50% on this year’s budget.

“I urge the Chancellor in his Pre-Budget Report on December 9 to increase support for the life-saving heating and insulation measures available to low income households under this flagship programme.

“People need to be aware of the help that is available to them through the various grants and schemes from DECC, energy companies and our own Warm Zones where we have established these with local authorities.

“Pensioners in particular are often anxious to avoid debt and turn their heating down or even off, often unaware that they are putting their health in danger.”

She said there were more than five million households who cannot afford to heat their homes, putting them at risk of serious health problems like heart disease, strokes, respiratory illnesses – such as asthma and bronchitis – and exacerbating common ailments like colds and flu.

She added that the increase in excess winter deaths was “sadly expected but remains extremely worrying”.


Swine flu- strain resistant to Tamiflu spreads between UK hospital patients

A strain of Tamiflu resistant swine flu has spread between patients in a hospital as five patients on a unit for people with severe underlying health conditions at the University Hospital of Wales, in Cardiff, were diagnosed with swine flu that is resistant to the drug.

Three appear to have acquired the infection in hospital, the National Public Health Service for Wales (NPHS) said.

Two of the five have recovered and have been discharged from hospital, one is in critical care and two are being treated on the ward.

The service said the resistant strain does not appear to be more severe than the swine flu virus circulating since the spring.

All patients on the unit have been tested and patients diagnosed with Tamiflu-resistant swine flu have been given other antivirals.

Patients have been isolated or are being cared for in a designated area for influenza cases.

Cardiff and Vale University Health Board has put appropriate infection control measures in place on the unit, the NPHS added.

Staff and patients have been offered swine flu vaccinations, and patients due to come into the unit for treatment are being warned to get the jab from their GP.

Close contacts of the patients are being warned to make sure they are treated quickly if they show any symptoms.

Dr Roland Salmon, director of the NPHS Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre, said: “The emergence of influenza A viruses that are resistant to Tamiflu is not unexpected in patients with serious underlying conditions and suppressed immune systems, who still test positive for the virus despite treatment.

“In this case, the resistant strain of swine flu does not appear to be any more severe than the swine flu virus that has been circulating since April. For the vast majority of people, Tamiflu has proved effective in reducing the severity of illness.

“Vaccination remains the most effective tool we have in preventing swine flu so I urge people identified as being at risk to look out for their invitation to be vaccinated by their GP surgery.”

It comes after it was announced that more than 3million healthy children under five across the UK are to be offered the swine flu jab.

Parents will be invited by their GPs to bring their children into surgeries, with vaccinations expected to start in December.

Health ministers across the UK agreed children aged six months to five years should be included in the next phase of the vaccination programme after GPs have finished vaccinating at-risk groups, including people aged six months to 65 with conditions like asthma, diabetes and heart disease. Pregnant women and frontline health workers are also currently being given the jab.

Figures released on Thursday showed an estimated 53,000 new cases of swine flu in England in the last week, down from 64,000 in the week before. In Scotland, the figure was 21,200, down from about 21,500 in the previous seven days.

The rate of flu-like illnesses diagnosed by GPs in Wales dropped to 36 cases for every 100,000 people from 65.8 the previous week.

Seven swine flu-related deaths were recorded in Wales in the previous week, taking the total to 21.

Wales’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Jewell said people with suppressed immune systems were designated as a priority group for vaccination because they were known to be more susceptible to the virus.

“We have stringent processes in place for monitoring for antiviral resistance in the UK so that we can spot resistance early and the causes can be investigated and the cases managed,” he said.

“Identifying these cases shows that our systems are working so patients should be reassured.

“Treatment with Tamiflu is still appropriate for swine flu and people should continue to take Tamiflu when they are prescribed it.

“It’s also important that good hygiene practices are followed to further prevent the spread of the virus.”

Meanwhile, Norwegian health authorities said they had discovered a potentially significant H1N1 mutation that could be responsible for causing the severest symptoms.

The mutated virus was found in the bodies of two people who died of the virus, although medics do not believe it has been transmitted between humans.


Sharp rise in England swine flu deaths

The latest weekly bulletin showed a sharp rise in patient deaths and the number of children being admitted to hospital.

The overall number of new cases showed a second successive weekly fall. Health officials estimate there were 55,000 new cases this week in England compared with 64,000 last week. There was a slight drop in Scotland.

The number of people who have died from swine flu in the UK has reached 214. There were 18 deaths in England last week. The figures since the start of the outbreak in May are 142 fatalities in England, 21 in Wales, 38 in Scotland and 13 in Northern Ireland.

The number of people needing hospital care for the virus is 783, down slightly from 785, in the previous week. Of those in hospital, 180 were in intensive care, up from 173 in the previous week.

The Conservative party has been pressing the government to give vaccinations to healthy children because those under the age of 16 are in one of the more vulnerable groups.

About 21% of all H1N1 deaths in the UK have been among under 14s.

So far the priority groups have included those with pre-existing medical conditions, their carers and pregnant women. Children with asthma or diabetes are already being vaccinated. Now, children aged six months to five years are to be offered the vaccination from next month.


Swine flu jab to be given to healthy children under five

Healthy children aged under five are to be given the swine flu jab, the Government has confirmed.

Currently people in priority groups – including young children with asthma or diabetes – are being vaccinated.

But the programme will now be rolled out to children with no underlying health issues, aged over six months and under five .

The UK-wide policy was officially confirmed by the Scottish Government today ahead of a similar announcement in England, expected later.

Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish Health Secretary, said: “I am able to announce today that the next group in the population that will be vaccinated, or offered vaccination, is children aged over six months and under five years.”

The announcement came as it emerged that an 11-year-old girl from Berkshire who had tested positive for the H1N1 virus died on November 11.

NHS figures show that children under 16 are the age group most likely to be admitted to hospital with swine flu, and 21 per cent of deaths in England are among under-14s.

Last week, the death toll in the UK stood at 182, with 124 deaths in England, 33 in Scotland, 11 in Northern Ireland and 14 in Wales.

Currently nine million people in priority groups are being vaccinated against swine flu including those with long-term illnesses and pregnant women. Frontline health and social care workers are also being offered the vaccine.

Britain has ordered enough vaccine for everyone to have two doses, but data from clinical trials has shown that one dose is effective.

Children have been hardest hit by swine flu and are the under fives are the most likely age group to be admitted to hospital with the virus.

Researchers warned that intensive care beds for children could run out in Britain this winter due to swine flu.

All of Britain’s 303 intensive care beds for children could be filled with swine flu patients this winter and this would leave no beds available for children suffering other illness, recovering from surgery or accidents, according to a study conducted by Dr Art Ercole, of Cambridge University and colleagues.

The research was published online ahead of the print edition of the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.

Dr Ercole said over half of admissions to paediatric intensive care units (PICUS) are unplanned and respiratory illness is the second largest cause of admission, accounting for around one in four cases.


150,000 dementia sufferers being prescribed anti-psychotic drugs unnecessarily

Up to 150,000 people with dementia are being prescribed anti-psychotic drugs unnecessarily, a Government ordered review disclosed.

Only around 36,000 of the 180,000 people on the drugs in the UK derive any benefit from them, it said. Overprescribing of the drugs is linked to an extra 1,800 deaths a year among elderly people.

Anti-psychotic medicines are licensed to treat people with schizophrenia and are used off-licence for dementia patients in care homes and hospitals.

In his review, Sube Banerjee, professor of mental health and ageing at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, said the rate of use of anti-psychotic drugs could be cut to one third of its current level with appropriate action.

Jeremy Wright, chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Dementia, called for more training to be given to care home staff and for greater involvement of the patient’s family and friends over the decision on whether to prescribe.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We need to give people other ways of avoiding the problem and that means making sure staff who work in care homes are properly trained in dementia.

“We need to involve family members and friends and loved ones much more in the decision to prescribe and the decision to keep prescribing these drugs.”

He added: “If we can deal with training, if we can deal with regular reviews and if we can involve family and friends much more often, we will start to reduce the incidence of this very widespread over-prescription.”

Nadra Ahmed, chairman of the National Care Homes Association, said the blame did not lie solely with care homes.

She explained it was GPs who made the decision to prescribe dementia sufferers with anti-psychotic drugs.

She told the programme: “One of the things we need to get absolutely clear here is these drugs are prescribed by general practitioners, they are not prescribed by the care home providers. This is about medical conditions which are obviously reviewed by GPs.

“We have clients who come into our homes, sometimes already on these drugs and actually very good providers do tend to use their initiative and try to manage the conditions and wean people off drugs.

“Very often what happens is that GPs are just not giving us enough time in our services to come and review the medication and people can be on this medication and once they’re on it, people, quite rightly, are reluctant to take them off.”

She also rejected claims that some care home providers sedate dementia sufferers as it makes them easy to manage.

There are around 700,000 people with dementia in the UK. That figure is expected to soar in the coming decades as life expectancy lengthens.

Rebecca Wood, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, said: “It’s critical that the dangers of wrongly-prescribed anti-psychotics are understood and Government action is taken to prevent putting more people at risk.

“Alzheimer’s Research Trust scientists at the Institute of Psychiatry are investigating alternative safer means of reducing agitation among dementia patients.

“We must urgently develop safe and effective treatments for people with dementia.

“Unless researchers develop new treatments, within a generation 1.4 million people will live with dementia in the UK alone.”

Paul Burstow, a Liberal Democrat MP who has led a 10-year campaign highlighting the risks of over and inappropriate prescribing, said: “This review comes much too late for thousands of elderly people whose lives have been cut short by the reckless prescribing of anti-psychotic drugs.

“The evidence that anti-psychotic drugs do more harm than good has been mounting for years. There is next to no benefit for the older person and prolonged prescribing can lead to premature death.