Improving the quality of care given by nurses and other healthcare professionals will be a major priority for the NHS over the next two years, after health secretary Jeremy Hunt made it central to his first NHS mandate.
Under the Health Act, which aimed to reduce political interference in the NHS, the mandate is the primary means by which the health secretary can influence the health service.
The document was laid before Parliament on Tuesday. It set a number of objectives for the NHS Commissioning Board to achieve by March 2015. They include ensuring the NHS becomes among the best in Europe at helping people with long term conditions to live independently and gets “dramatically better” at involving patients in decisions about their care.
Launching the mandate, Mr Hunt said: “Never in its long history has the NHS faced such rapid change in our healthcare needs, from caring for an older population, to managing the cost of better treatments, to seizing the opportunities of new technology.
“This mandate is about giving the NHS the right priorities to deal with those challenges. We do not want an NHS that focuses on narrow performance indicators but instead looks at true measures of whether all of us are receiving the highest quality of care.”
It is intended that the NHS Commissioning Board - which will oversee planning of NHS care from April next year - will work with local GP-led clinical commissioning groups to bring about improvements, including by writing them into contracts with hospitals and other providers.
The mandate also tasks the commissioning board with reducing avoidable harm by creating a culture of patient safety and making “rapid progress” in collecting patients’ views on the care they receive.
It recognises that quality of care is linked to how well organisations “engage, manage and support their own staff”. It suggests NHS staff should be asked more regularly whether they would recommend their organisation to friends and family in a drive to bring about improvements. Currently most NHS staff are asked once a year as part of the staff survey.
Elaine Maxwell, assistant director of the Health Foundation and a former nursing director, said the government had previously tended to have a more medical focus on measuring treatment efficacy, while the mandate recognised nursing’s contribution much more than before.
“The mandate moves away from having numeric targets and it talks about care in a more holistic way. That’s really important for nursing’s role because nurses are often the care managers,” she told Nursing Times.
Royal College of Nursing chief executive and general secretary Peter Carter welcomed the commitment to improving quality.
He said: “We hope that it will be a meaningful and usable set of principles that embodies the purpose of the service so that it is fit to meet its considerable challenges. We believe that it is right for the NHS to be ambitious, and to aspire to extend lives and improve mental as well as physical health.”