Northern Ireland Assembly
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No Evidence that Health and Social Care Services are Safer for Patients than a Decade Ago

A Report published yesterday by the Public Accounts Committee has highlighted that, while the vast majority of services provided by Health and Social Care Trusts are of a very high quality, patients and service users can suffer largely preventable harm and suffering.

Speaking at the launch of the Report, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Michaela Boyle, MLA, said: "The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety told the Committee that, between July 2004 and March 2012, there were 2,084 serious adverse incidents reported in the health and social care service. Eight hundred and thirteen of these involved the death of a patient or service user, including 488 which related to suicides. While not all of the serious adverse incidents reported were as a direct result of the care these patients received, the overall figure is still shocking and suggests that the standards of care being delivered by health and social care bodies require continued scrutiny and improvement."

One of the issues raised in the Report is that some nurses, while fully aware of their professional responsibility to report incidents, still have some reluctance about raising patient safety issues. The Report notes that there is a strong link between learning from adverse incidents and an organisation's openness to discussing such incidents. The Report recommends that both the HSC and the Department should do more to embed a widespread culture of safety in which honest reporting is encouraged and in which genuine learning can take place.

Ms Boyle said: "We must learn from events such as those that occurred in Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust in England and ensure that the same thing could never happen here. It is absolutely crucial that the health and social care system treats patients as human beings and is open, transparent and accountable when things go wrong."

The Report also shows that patients find the complaints and claims procedures so confusing and difficult to navigate that they have to seek legal remedies. An issue of great concern is the cost of settling health and social care negligence cases which, over the past five years, has cost the Department £116 million.

Ms Boyle noted: "Patients and clients with valid claims against the health and social care services need to understand their rights and have access to a range of remedies including an explanation, an apology, remedial treatment and, where justified, financial compensation. The Committee was concerned at the lack of a viable alternative to litigation. Formal alternative dispute resolution procedures, including mediation, are absent from the current system. These could be developed to assist both the HSC and patients in reaching non-financial remedies and reduce stress to those dissatisfied with their care and treatment."

The Report also shows that the Department of Health appears reluctant to undertake research to estimate the likely level and cost of harm from adverse incidents, something that the Committee found particularly disappointing.

Ms Boyle concluded: "Despite the introduction of a number of safety policies and initiatives, there is no reliable evidence to show that people receiving health and social care are any safer today than they were a decade ago. The Department still cannot reliably track the progress of the health and social care services in improving safety for patients or in holding service providers accountable. This is a fundamental issue that the Department needs to address to increase public confidence in the service."

Notes to Editors:

1.  A serious adverse incident is an incident where there is

  • a serious injury to, or the unexpected/ unexplained death (including suspected suicides and serious self– harm) of a service user, a service user known to Mental Health Services (including Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services or Learning Disability) within the last two years, a staff member in the course of their work; or a member of the public whilst visiting a HSC facility;
  • unexpected serious risk to a service user and/or staff member and/or member of the public;
  • unexpected or significant threat to the provision of services and/or the maintenance of business continuity;
  • serious assault (including homicide and sexual assaults) by a service user on other users/staff/members of the public occurring within a healthcare facility or in the community care setting; or
  • serious incidents of public interest or concern involving theft, fraud, information breaches or data losses

Read the report here.

The current membership of the Public Accounts Committee is:

Ms Michaela Boyle (Chairperson)
Mr John Dallat (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Trevor Clarke
Mr Michael Copeland
Mr Sammy Douglas
Mr Paul Girvan
Mr Chris Hazzard
Mr Ross Hussey
Mr Daithí McKay
Mr Adrian McQuillan
Mr Seán Rogers

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