The scandal of the “doctoring” of NHS Lothian waiting times does not look like going away any time soon. For though the health service in these parts does a wonderful job, I have long felt that it has a serious image problem caused by poor management, and it will take some time to tackle this issue.
Unfortunately for the NHS, image counts these days, and “Waitingate” is the latest example of the great work done by medics being undone in the public eye by bad management decisions.
The independent inquiry by a firm of auditors for once was truly independent and that is probably one of the main reasons that it produced some frankly shocking findings.
According to Pricewaterhouse Coopers, “offering patients treatment in England was only one example of the problematic issues with NHS Lothian’s waiting times management”. That patients who refused to travel south for treatment were then bumped off waiting lists is nothing short of criminal.
PwC also told of staff being put under pressure to find “tactical solutions” to the waiting time problem rather than dealing with the root causes of delays.
Staff have been suspended as NHS Lothian tries to establish just how widespread the culture of evasion and bullying actually is. I could save them a lot of time and money – ask the unions and they’ll tell you it is pretty much ubiquitous.
It was Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon’s personal intervention that expanded the original independent inquiry and brought out the truth.
Her statement to parliament was telling: “What angers me about NHS Lothian’s behaviour is not just that it’s a betrayal of their own patients – and it is – but it also undermines the reputation of thousands of NHS staff across the country who have worked so hard to reduce waiting times.”
It is that feeling of being betrayed and misled by people who are supposed to promote and protect our health service which I personally feel at the moment.
It’s not that often that columnists can write about a subject with some personal knowledge of how it is to be affected by such a scandal. On this occasion, I am one of those suffering from the feelings of doubt into which so many people have been placed.
For I am on a waiting list for a fairly serious operation – I am awaiting a new knee, and suffice to say the arthritis in my knee has left me barely able to walk at times.
I can tell you that it is absolutely galling to be informed that the waiting time for a new knee is at least a year, and that the NHS doesn’t believe in doing the operation until you’re at least 55. So I have two years to wait before I can get on the waiting list for the operation which would enable to me to get some movement back into my life, and then I will have to wait a year. Meantime, a private surgeon has quoted me a price of £15,000 to have the operation done in Germany, where artificial knees last much longer for some reason.
Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in the NHS and will go private only as the ultimate last resort. Meantime I will wait, but how can I and tens of thousands of people across the Lothians believe what we are told by NHS Lothian?
That’s the issue – how do we know that anything we are being told about waiting times and waiting lists is accurate and truthful?
My own doctor is a terrific fellow, and I trust him with my life, but in recent years I have had encounters with specialists whom I thought were merely ticking boxes – meeting targets, you might say.
Now I cannot help wondering if there is a whole raft of medical staff out there who are under pressure from managers to move people on or out of the system as quickly as they can.
It reeks of a furtive policy of meeting targets at any cost, when what we really need is management that does the job properly and is not afraid to tell the truth, even if that truth is inconvenient. And if telling the truth means telling the Health Secretary some things she might not like to hear, then she must be told – believe me, from personal knowledge she’s a tough cookie who will prefer the truth every time and work with managers to find solutions.
Yesterday in these pages, former Conservative leader David McLetchie again put forward his view that heads must roll because of the oppressive management culture. Fair enough, I cannot disagree with that, but wouldn’t it be far better for board chairman Dr Charles Winstanley and chief executive Professor James Barbour to put their house in order, including repairing NHS Lothian’s battered image, by telling the truth in future?
For that is what we want above all – the truth. It is lies and obfuscation that undermine the reputation of the NHS. They must cease.
Oh, and one final point: if it were not for the Evening News and its reporting of this issue over many months, you might not know a thing about it. The press may be under fire, but some newspapers are still doing a very useful job.