Blame the system, not the staff

15 February 2017

Last week the BBC 10 o’clock news ran a nightly feature on the NHS, looking in particular at the Royal Blackburn Hospital, one of the busiest hospitals in the North West.  We saw tired and worried patients being looked after by exhausted and demoralised staff, a nurse saying “it’s dangerous, it’s frightening”, and a patient saying “they need beds and staff - the Doctors and Nurses are working really hard, and it’s heart breaking”.                                              

An A&E Consultant was almost in tears as she described how when she came back on shift after a 12 hour break the patients that were waiting at the end of her last shift had still not been seen.  The voiceover told us that the waiting time in the Royal Blackburn A&E Department was currently 14 hours, as opposed to the 4 hour government target. 

We then saw an interview with the CEO of the hospital.  He also looked tired and worried, but was rightly trying to defend the hospital and its staff.  He explained how it was rated as “good” and praised his staff for doing so well in such difficult circumstances.  When asked whether it was nonetheless unsafe, he replied “I cannot say that, we still keep people safe”. Of course he had to say that.  However, everything about the film told us that this is not how his staff think that medicine should be practised in modern Britain, and that not only is it bad for the health of the patients, it is also placing an intolerable burden on the health of the Clinicians who look after them. 

A survey showed that 57% of the public were concerned about underfunding in the NHS, and that compared to France and Germany we spend significantly less of our gross economic output on health.  An MP talked about charging foreign visitors for non-urgent care, but a Doctor from the British Medical Association said that this was a “side show” and that the real problem was gross underfunding of the NHS.  We heard about bed blocking by elderly patients who should really be moving into social care, and social problems such as alcohol abuse and obesity.

The NHS deals with all of this, and for the most part it does so despite the challenges.  However, it is hardly surprising that things often go wrong, and common sense suggests that the longer a patient has to wait for medical treatment,  the greater the risk of avoidable injury or deterioration.  Common sense also suggests that staff who are overwhelmed by the sheer number of patients that they have to look after are more likely to make mistakes. 

As a Solicitor who specialises in clinical negligence cases, I see the heart breaking consequences of injuries and deaths that should have been avoided with the provision of good medical care.  Fortunately, our legal system has a means by which injured patients can bring civil claims to recover compensation, but it truly is a shame that it should ever come to that.

The take home message from the BBC news was that although the NHS is wonderful, it is also in a state of real crisis, and we need to have a very mature debate about how we are going to provide effective healthcare both now, and in the future.  If we do not, our hospitals will continue to be accidents waiting to happen, and patients and staff will continue to suffer. 

Terrence Donovan is a Partner at Kingsley Napley and Head of the Clinical Negligence and Personal Injury Department.  If you have any comments about this blog, or would like to speak to him concerning a legal matter please contact him on

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