Rt Hon Lord Lilley

    I recently sat through a meeting of our local Health Authorities, which lasted several hours, and was struck by an alarming omission. The one thing they did not discuss was the quality of health care!

    They discussed finance, management, organisation and so on. But not how many people were cured and how many patients were not satisfactorily treated.

    I fear I raised a few hackles when I said “I would be very worried if the board of a car firm failed to discuss how many cars it had produced, their quality and how many were returned faulty. People?s health is infinitely more important than cars. Should the Authority not always have on the agenda health outcomes and the quality of the care it is providing?.

    The recent disturbing news of a potential health scandal at Hemel hospital shockingly confirms the importance of putting the quality of care not just on the agenda, but at the top of it. A growing number of local women believe they have suffered from botched surgery which may have been performed by a consultant suffering from Parkinson?s disease.

    I have called for an independent inquiry so I will not pre-judge its findings.

    As I am writing this, I have received a reply from the West Herts Health Authority refusing to meet the Patients Action Group, Charles Elphicke and myself until the inquiry is complete, and leaving contacts to a subordinate official in the Trust. I this find incredible. So far 27 women are concerned. Their complaints are harrowing to say the least. Surely the top people in the Authority and the Trust should meet them before not after the inquiry.

    What is clear is that the experience of the women affected raises two very serious concerns.

    First, do we have locally (or nationally come to that) effective systems of clinical governance? Does the NHS properly and continually monitor the performance and outcomes of treatment by each consultant or team at each hospital?

    The best companies nowadays pursue zero-defect strategies. They constantly monitor services or products for defects ? not to assign blame but to discover ways of preventing any recurrence. Human health is more important than ballbearings so we need to develop a similar zero-defect strategy and culture in the NHS. At present nearly one bed in ten in the NHS is occupied by someone who got their infection in hospital. And a large but unknown number of patients are there because of other avoidable complications following treatment. This is wholly unacceptable. Moreover, most of it results from mismanagement, poor systems etc. not the “lack of resources? which is usually blamed for all NHS problems.

    The second and related concern is do our local health Authority and Trusts have adequate procedures for dealing with complaints. It seems that several women have made very serious complaints over quite a long period. But it was only when Charles Elphicke ? my prospective Conservative Parliamentary colleague from St Albans ? highlighted the issue that the Authority really responded. He deserves all credit for his tireless efforts.

    But patients are more important than us politicians. Every complaint should have been properly and speedily considered without our intervention.

    Even those complaints which turn out not to involve any medical negligence may suggest ways in which patients can be better cared for in future.

    What we need now is an inquiry into these issues. It must be independent and empowered to suggest improvements not just cast blame. We need to contact via their GPs all patients treated by the team concerned over the relevant period to ensure that they have been properly treated. We need a helpline for those who fear that they may have been affected. And we need speedy action to reassure people that this potential scandal could never recur.