Watchdog says failure by trusts to comply with alerts is unacceptable by risking patients’ lives
Information released by the Department of Health after a freedom of information request showed that hospitals were not complying with safety alerts issued by the National Patient Safety Agency (NPSA).
The NPSA’s chairman, Lord Patel of Dunkeld, told the Guardian that the behaviour of the trusts was unacceptable and endangered the health of patients.
“It’s not good enough,” he said. “What’s the point of us developing these alerts if they don’t pay any attention to them? Alerts are produced to reduce risk and hopefully avoid many deaths, so not to implement them to me is alarming. If they aren’t implemented then they run the risk of harm occurring and the danger will continue.”
The Department of Health research revealed that:
• 104 hospitals and other providers of NHS care in England have not confirmed they have implemented an NPSA alert issued in March 2007 to ensure that injectable medicines are used more safely – even though new systems are meant to be in place by March 2010.
• 25 NHS organisations have not confirmed compliance with an NPSA safer-practice notice designed to reduce the risk of patients falling out of bed. It was issued after about 90 patients who rolled out of bed on to the floor in hospitals, mental health and learning disability units, fractured their neck or femur; 11 of them died.
• 81 hospitals and other care providers had not taken the “required actions” outlined in patient safety alerts covering opioid (painkilling) medicines. The alert was originally issued in July 2008 with a deadline of January 2009; the 81 had not complied by 29 December 2009.
• 10 NHS trusts have not said they have complied with a February 2005 alert on nasogastric feeding tubes, which can sometimes be wrongly placed into the lungs during insertion. Errors involving the feeding tubes caused at least 11 deaths before the alert came out, according to the NPSA.
Patel acknowledged that complying with alerts can be difficult for the NHS. “They can’t be implemented overnight because they involve system changes, for example to IT systems or clinical practice. But having said that, the level of implementation is not good enough and needs major improvement,” he added.
The research, sought by the patient safety charity Action Against Medical Accidents (AvMA), also reveals that 50 trusts have not showed they have followed the NPSA’s advice in 2008 on hand hygiene, which is a major source of hospital-acquired infections; 37 have not taken steps set out in 2006 to improve the safety of blood transfusions; 56 did not comply with 2009 advice on reducing the risk of children being injured or killed by parents with mental heath conditions; and six have not implemented a 2008 alert on avoiding patients undergoing brain surgery accidentally having burr holes drilled in the wrong side of their head, as at least 15 did between 2005 and 2008.
Peter Walsh, AvMA’s chief executive, said: “The fact that so many NHS bodies are failing to act on potentially life-saving alerts from the NPSA is shocking. It is putting lives at unnecessary risk and adds insult to injury for patients who have been harmed or lost loved ones as a result of NHS lapses in safety.”
Lisa Richards-Everton, whose husband, Paul, died in July 2007 after a drugs blunder while he was a cancer patient in Birmingham’s Heartlands hospital, said the report was shocking.
In addition, a total of 119 trusts did not comply with a 2008 NPSA alert on the risk to patient safety of not using the NHS number as the method of identifying patients nationally across England. That was despite the NPSA declaring that local hospital patient numbering systems involved “real danger to patients of serious harm or death”.
The Department of Health revealed which NHS trusts had confirmed they had complied with the 53 patient safety alerts the NPSA issued between 2004 and 2009. University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust had not implemented the largest number: 37.
However, after becoming aware that the charity planned to publicise the department’s data, the trust recently told the NHS’s central alerts system that it had in fact complied with most of the 37. A trust spokesman said that its adherence to NPSA alerts had been examined by the Care Quality Commission (CQC), the NHS watchdog in England. “The CQC found absolutely no issues of concern and gave the trust a clean bill of health,” he said.
Lewisham Hospital NHS Trust in south London had not acted upon the joint second highest number of alerts: 31. Joy Ellery, its director of knowledge, governance and communications, said it had delayed notifying the central alerts system because it took the alerts so seriously.
“We are so thorough with implementing safety alerts that until we’ve complied with them fully, we don’t sign them off. We have now signed off a number of the 31 and are down to 18 that haven’t been implemented.” Asked if 18 was still poor, Ellery replied: “I would like it to be better.”
The DH said it expected all NHS trusts to comply with safety alerts and to record and action them. It will issue the health service with a reminder about the need to update the alerts system reliably and as soon as possible, a spokeswoman said.
The new responsibility on all NHS trusts from April to register with the CQC will make mandatory the reporting of threats or potential threats to patient safety, she added.