NHS Lothian slammed for calling patients customers

NHS Lothian has come under fire. Picture: Jon Savage
NHS Lothian has come under fire. Picture: Jon Savage
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Lothian health bosses have been urged to backtrack on a controversial name change that has seen patients branded “customers”.

The NHS Lothian complaints department has been renamed the “Customer Relations and Feedback Team” following a recent overhaul of the way the health board deals with unhappy users of its services. Staff have also had job titles changed to reflect the rebrand.

The health board said the name change was necessary as it dealt with a series of groups, not just patients, and those who wanted to give positive comments had been confused when passed to the complaints team, which dealt with all feedback.

But the British Medical Association (BMA), MSPs and unions have all expressed concern at the use of the term – which implies a completely different relationship with the taxpayer funded body than patient.

Dr Brian Keighley, Chairman of the BMA in Scotland, summed up the crucial difference. He said: “Patients in the NHS are not customers. Each patient has different needs and to treat them in the same way as you would a customer in a supermarket undermines the very nature of a patient-centred NHS.”

Professor Alison McCallum, NHS Lothian’s director of public health and public policy, also broke ranks to condemn the name change.

She said: “I would not be in favour of using the word customer, I don’t think it’s appropriate that patients are considered customers. They are taxpayers and owners of the service.”

NHS Lothian insisted it was sticking by the new name, with customer relations recognised around the world as “the place to go” with compliments, comments or complaints about an organisation.

But Tory MSP and health spokesman Jackson Carlaw said patients would be concerned by the use of the word.

He said: “I don’t think the vast majority of nurses and doctors would regard their patients as ‘customers’, so nor should any backroom staff drafting these dismissive 
documents.”

Stuart Wilson, NHS Lothian’s director of communications – and head of the customer relations team, said: “The term customer is correct because the feedback we receive is not just from patients. In many cases our feedback comes from carers, relatives of patients, politicians, lobby groups and members of the public who have a comment to make on our services.”

Mr Wilson said he welcomed Dr Keighley’s comments. But added: “Patients are just one of the components of customer relations and we still recognise patients in their own right and by that term.”

It’s a question of ownership

USE of the term “customers” in the NHS has previously been criticised by those who believe it symbolises a shift towards a private-sector mind-set in the health service.

The NHS Confederation, which represents health service providers in England, has previously supported use of the term and insisted it does not represent commercialisation.

But David Forbes, a Unison organiser, said he was uncomfortable with the word, especially in light of NHS reforms south of the Border.

He said: “You can’t be a customer of something you own yourself and the NHS belongs to the people. Given what’s happening to the NHS down south, this is a dangerous road we don’t want to go down, even in language.”