Observations NHS at 60

How the media are failing the health service

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.a572 (Published 30 June 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a572
  1. Jon Snow, newscaster, Channel 4 News, London
  1. Jon.Snow{at}itn.co.uk

    The overwhelmingly negative slant that the media give to reporting of the health service in Britain does not reflect the experiences of newscaster Jon Snow or those of people he talks to, he recounts

    What is it about the NHS that stimulates such an appetite in the media for bad news and almost none for the good? For me, this issue came to a head with the reporting of the outcome of the great “deep clean” of hospitals. In any other walk of life, 94% of all hospitals having been deep cleaned by the target date would have been regarded as a supreme achievement—but not, it seems, when it comes to the NHS.

    Inevitably, we in the media wanted to know the identities of the 6% that had failed. We wanted to name and shame them. So did ministers. Inevitably the attitude of the media to the NHS is strongly influenced by ministers’ behaviour. Unqualified condemnation of an individual hospital becomes a free-for-all for irresponsible and slapdash journalism. News reporting of the failure of Hospital A goes no further than the failure itself. The photographer will be dispatched with a mission to show the place in the worst possible light. You can almost hear it: “Crop the new wing on the left, go for the Victorian bit.” So the possibility for qualification—even for praise of some aspects of the institution—is obliterated by the wholesale requirement, often led by politicians, to expose the place for its failures.

    A few weeks ago I wrote in the Financial Times about how I had had an unexpected opportunity to see how a random hospital in a random town was coping in the new NHS world. A friend had been admitted with pneumonia to the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading. When I went to visit him I was struck by the cleanliness of the place, particularly on what was early evening on a Friday. The insistence, on closed circuit camera, on a full hand scrub dispensed from a unit outside the ward was impressive. So were the cleanliness of the wards and the attention of the nurses inside.

    Since the article appeared I have been contacted time and again by people with similar instances of their own experiences of finding the health service nowhere near as bad as its media profile would suggest. Mind you, when I recount such experiences to doctors and consultants I meet, they immediately start to try to qualify what I have said. “You should have tried a London hospital,” one said. “What do you expect of a rich area like Berkshire,” said another.

    But I would also argue that the lack of reporting of good news about the health service extends beyond hospitals right into the core of primary care. For 30 years I have been lucky to be registered with the Caversham practice in Kentish Town, north London. Admittedly it has always been a model centre for good practice, so I have had to offset my albeit limited experience of it, as a patient and a parent. Not only has the Caversham been moved to purpose built, state of the art premises, but its regime and its resources have been transformed in the past decade. For a start, you can get to see a doctor, even if not your own, on any day between 11 am and noon. That’s not a bad deal. You can often make a same day, fixed time appointment. To see the doctor of your choice is harder but can be done within about 10 days. In the meantime there are practice managers, nurses, physiotherapists, and more.

    This practice is providing a better service than we ever dreamt possible. Have I simply struck lucky—or is my experience actually a more realistic picture of the health service than that provided by the hospital infections scandal or the tedious reminders that many doctors never wanted the NHS in the first place?

    Dare I add to all this by touching on my experience as chairman of a project rooted in the voluntary sector? The New Horizon Youth Centre caters to some of the most vulnerable and excluded adolescents in Britain—homeless teenagers in London’s West End. By definition they come from no single local authority or primary care trust. When I worked at the centre in the early 1970s we were quite simply excluded from all care but the drug treatment centres. We were confronted with the bizarre reality that only the minority of our young people who were addicted to hard drugs had access to the NHS. Today we have our own nurse, fully funded by the NHS, and a mental health worker, partly funded by the state and partly by the private sector. Ten years ago we had neither the posts nor the funding. Our capacity to make a difference to young people’s lives has been radically improved as a result.

    Don’t worry, I’m off to take a cold shower. It should be possible to lay into the health service soon enough somewhere in the media. But for the moment I’m allowing my personal experience a little air.

    Notes

    Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a572

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