Culture change: Robert Francis’s prescription for the NHS

Were there needless deaths at Stafford Hospital?

17 February 2013

Tony Delamothe says we have known for several years that an extra 500 deaths occurred at Stafford Hospital between 2005-06 and 2007-08 and implies this was due to the "appalling examples of nursing care". The references he gives are the Heathcare Commission investigation and Robert Francis' first inquiry report.

Actually, in Appendix 9 of volume 1 of the first report, Francis wrote "It is unfortunate that the figure of 400-1200 excess deaths became so widely publicized and sensationalized". There were fears that the public would not understand 95% confidence intervals around standardised mortality ratios.

Unfortunately, Francis' more recent report has not stemmed such sensationalism. For example, a Sun correspondent recently reported that, "Up to 1,200 patients died needlessly between January 2005 and March 2009".[1] Even Rebecca Coombes in the BMJ says that Francis' report "unpicked an NHS culture that tolerated such appalling low standards of care at Stafford Hospital that 400-1200 patients died of neglect, misdiagnosis, and ... “horrific abuse.”"

There were, of course, hospitals with worse HSMRs than Stafford hospital. What Francis says in the latest report is that "a high rate of “unexpected” deaths cannot be translated into a number of “avoidable” deaths, any more than a low rate of such deaths means that all is well." He makes clear he has not suggested that any specific number or proportion of deaths was from an avoidable cause. Nonethless, his wish to avoid scapegoating of individuals by emphasising institutional failure, may well have meant he has scapegoated the hospital itself (see http://dbdouble.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/scapegoating-mid-staffs.html).

[1] http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/politics/article4782940.ece

[2] http://www.bmj.com/content/346/bmj.f878

Competing interests: None declared

D B Double, Consultant Psychiatrist

Norfolk & Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust, Victoria House, 28 Alexandra Road, Lowestoft NR32 1PL

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