Editorials

One Bristol, but there could have been many

BMJ 2001; 323 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.323.7306.179 (Published 28 July 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;323:179

Radical change is essential but hard to achieve

  1. Richard Smith, editor
  1. BMJ

    News p 181

    Some will read the well written report of the Bristol inquiry into children's heart surgery as a “whodunnit?”1 The answer is that “the system done it,” but various named individuals behaved dishonourably. Some have been struck off by the General Medical Council.2 All will have paid a heavy price with sleepless nights. The report is primarily, as Ian Kennedy, the chairman, says in his introduction, a tragedy. A great many well intentioned people worked hard to do good but did dreadful harm. Over 30 children under 1 year died unnecessarily, the report concludes.3 Many more were severely injured.

    The most chilling thought in the report is that there could have been 50, perhaps 500, even 5000 similar reports about other parts of the NHS. The ingredients that led to the excess deaths in Bristol occur throughout the NHS. The report emphasises not only that the NHS had no system for monitoring quality and no reliable data but also there was no agreement on what constituted quality. “Thus the most essential tool in achieving, sustaining, and improving quality of care for the patient was lacking … clinicians had to satisfy only themselves [the report's italics] that the service was of sufficient quality.”

    Bristol (and we must accept, as does the inquiry, that Bristol has become a noun that denotes not just a city but also a medical tragedy) came to public attention because there were some data and people concerned to make a fuss. We might have read a report on excess deaths …

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