Jane Bradley: The NHS, up close and personal

No-one doubts the quality of care offered by the NHS but a growing campaign wants to see a more personal touch on the ward. Picture: Ian Georgeson

No-one doubts the quality of care offered by the NHS but a growing campaign wants to see a more personal touch on the ward. Picture: Ian Georgeson

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What’s in a name? Often it can be what’s needed to make a hospital stay more berarable, writes Jane Bradley

Imagine if you didn’t know your hairdresser’s name – that someone was messing with your locks for the best part of an hour without making eye contact, checking you were comfortable or bothering to make even the most basic of small talk.

Or if the phone rang at your desk and a client or colleague made gruff conversation without even bothering to say who it was at the other end.

Perhaps in some cases, some people would prefer it, but most wouldn’t.

But for a number of hospital patients, this type of anonymous exchange is the reality of their contact with medical staff. And as anyone who has been stuck in hospital for any length of time will know, it can be a lonely place.

People come and go, poke you and prod you and mutter over your head about your condition – without bothering to explain it to you, the person. Depending on the reason for your stay, it can also be frightening and alien.

And such an experience can only be made more frightening, the more impersonal the contact with doctors and nurses. Which is one of the reasons, it was revealed this week, that Scotland’s chief nursing officer, Professor Fiona McQueen, has said hospital staff should be evaluated through “report cards” including information from patients, so that checks can be made on the care they are providing.

The problem is not a new one. Seven months ago, a medic, having experienced the NHS from the inside for the first time, decided to take action.

Former Edinburgh University student Dr Kate Granger, a 31-year-old hospital consultant living in Yorkshire, started the “Hello my name is...” campaign while she was undergoing treatment for terminal cancer.

She claimed that the lack of introductions on the part of medical workers she dealt with throughout her diagnosis and treatment made her feel “like just a diseased body and not a real person”, making an already terrifying and lonely experience even more so.

On the surface, it is a simple suggestion, but one which could have a huge impact for individuals. And introducing yourself runs far deeper than simply knowing a person’s name, Dr Granger argued.

It fosters a human connection and a build up of trust which makes a time when a patient is feeling isolated and scared, more personal. Her campaign went viral, spurred on by a social media hastag #hellomynameis.

Medical boards UK-wide committed to adopting the scheme, including £400,000 of funding allocated by the Scottish Government to health boards north of the Border. They were told they could use the money to promote the campaign in whatever way they chose.

The Scottish Government tells me that all nurses in NHS Dumfries and Galloway wear the campaign badge, other health boards have used the funding to update staff training materials or have produced posters for wards so that staff are easily identifiable to patients and their families.

A colleague of mine, who recently suffered a heart attack and had a short stay in hospital, was previously unaware of the campaign – but noticed specifically that everyone he met in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary’s coronary care unit introduced themselves.

He remembers a hazy time when, taken into an operating theatre for an emergency procedure for which he was required to stay awake, every single person in the room told him who they were and what they were going to do. This helped, he says, put him at ease at a worrying and frightening time.

On admission to the coronary ward immediately afterwards, he noticed that staff took note of what he would prefer to be known as – and that they not only introduced themselves, but knew what his name was.

However, in some hospital wards and health centres, the campaign, which Dr Granger hopes will be her legacy to other patients, appears to have had little impact.

The same colleague who found the care personal and attentive in a specialist department observed a very different tack on a general ward where he stayed while recovering.

Everyone seemed busier, more harrassed and no-one took the time to make any kind of personal contact with him. He was feeling much better by then and less vulnerable, but admits the contrast was stark.

Similarly, during a recent hospital stay, my husband found that the campaign appeared to have passed staff by on the ward where he was a patient. Over the course of five days, he counted that he had contact with no fewer than 27 separate hospital staff: consultants, junior doctors, nurses and cleaners.

Of those, only five actually introduced themselves – or even bothered to tell him exactly what their job was.

The others walked in, some barely managing to say hello, jabbed him with a needle; took his blood pressure and left. Statistically, it was the doctors who he found were most likely to introduce themselves, despite them having long and busy rounds to get through.

Nurses, some of whom he saw multiple times without finding out their names, ranged from perfectly friendly but largely anonymous to downright rude.

Indeed, only one person, a cleaner with limited English, bothered to ask him how he was feeling and have a brief one-to-one chat which arguably, did as much for his spirits as the treatment was doing for his physical health.

Nurses are incredibly busy, that much is true, but it takes barely more time to engage in a pleasant, personal exchange with someone than it does to have an impersonal or unpleasant one. It is an easy thing to do but could make the world of difference to individual patients – and might actually make the day to day experience of the staff more bearable.

One nurse was so unpleasant with her manner that my husband would have liked to make a formal complaint – but ironically, he was unable to do so as he had no idea how to identify her.

If only he’d had one of those report cards handy.

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