I have a great deal of sympathy for Sir Bruce Keogh, Medical Director of the NHS and anyone else tasked with the challenge of interpreting patient safety figures. Like it or not, (and most of us don’t) – medicine is not an exact science. The nearest we can get to certainty is clinical governance - assessing outcomes and constantly monitoring effectiveness of treatments, surgical interventions, procedures and the departments providing these services. Clinical governance relies on statistics and as with any such analysis, validity and relevance needs to be verified and there is still room for error with interpretation.
The accepted wisdom that centres of excellence are the best way forward for specialist services and that there can only be a limited number of these special units in the UK means that some very tough decisions have to be made. None more tough than selecting centres of excellence for children’s heart surgery.
When it comes to NHS units, the natural human reaction is the absolute opposite of the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) response for unwanted local development or activity. In fact – we are all most likely to be YIMBYs (Yes In My Back Yard) for most NHS services on offer.
But patients, clinicians and parents must get real. Funds are limited, special skills are limited and high tech equipment is too expensive to be used only periodically. Specialist centres are the practical and cost effective way to ensure that the very best of outcomes are achieved. Of course, it is so much more convenient to take your child for life-saving surgery to a local centre, but if the quality of that local centre is in doubt, however lovely and committed the staff may be, then parents must take heed.
It is in this context that Sir Bruce suspended surgery at the paediatric heart unit in Leeds last week. Initial indications from figures recently acquired suggested that the mortality rate at the unit was unacceptably high. There was an immediate reaction from clinicians and families refuting this claim but Sir Bruce took, in my opinion, the only sensible decision that was open to him – to temporarily suspend surgery. The spectre of Mid Staffs Trust where statistics as early as 2007 that highlighted concerns were ignored (or even worse, covered up) and 1200 unnecessary deaths later, action was finally taken, continues to define the way forward for decision makers in the NHS. We simply cannot allow another Mid Staffs horror to happen. In the same way that a car manufacturer would be widely criticised for failing to recall vehicles with potentially dodgy brakes, so must NHS managers police care facilities, review statistics and act accordingly.
A spokesman from the hospital Trust said: "As we have stressed, the data and other information raise questions. They do not provide answers. These are for the Trust's review to determine. It must be right to put the safety of children first. It was therefore a highly responsible step to suspend the service. We hope that Leeds will shortly be in a position to restart children's heart surgery secure in the knowledge that everything is OK."
Sir Bruce has quickly reversed his decision on the Leeds unit and paediatric heart surgery will resume shortly as the figures have been proved to be erroneous and no doubt the staff, patients and parents will all be relieved and delighted.
This reversal of decision also took courage. We must trust that the majority of those involved in decisions regarding patient safety really do have the best interests of those patients at heart. If we don’t believe that premise, and that politics and personal grudges are creating bias and misinformation, then the NHS faces an ever bigger challenge than we all feared.