Healthcare gets it wrong. It’s hard to acknowledge that. But the NHS, our precious NHS, makes mistakes. Often the mistakes are just little things – but little things matter.
Keeping people’s clothes clean, offering them a wipe for their hands before their meal, putting a drink within reach – this is what matters most to those who are recipients of nursing care.
That is the view of Karen Dawber, the relatively new chief nurse at Bradford Teaching Hospitals Foundation Trust. Earlier this week, I spent the day with her nurses and allied health professionals at their inaugural Bradford Health Professionals Conference, where she told her team to “really try to understand people, it makes a huge difference”.
It was a view echoed by a fellow speaker at the conference, a campaigner who speaks at events around the UK about his mother’s healthcare experiences. Tommy Whitelaw told delegates about his mum who was diagnosed with vascular dementia, and their life journey together following that diagnosis.
He recalled once seeing someone write down “challenging” on her notes and reminded people to be careful about how they described each other, as seeing that word upset him – one of those little things I mentioned earlier. Mr Whitelaw also said very few people took the time to ask his mum about her life story. He said she became a condition, and not his mum, a wife, or a woman.
One of the final speakers of the day was Elaine Inglesby-Burke, who talked about her time as chief nurse at Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust.
In 2008, it set an ambition to save 1,000 lives and reduce harm by 50%. It shocked the local media, which felt a hospital would not be doing harm or affecting mortality in that way. But she is honest about the fact that healthcare providers can and do.
The trust now has a track record that is outstanding and a Care Quality Commission rating to match, but she said being open about what they were getting wrong was vital to that improvement journey.
She highlighted that she had never disciplined anyone for making a mistake throughout her career. “They don’t come to work to do bad jobs. If they make a mistake, it’s to do with the system,” she said. “And that’s my responsibility. We celebrate failure as well as success, because there’s as much learning in failing as in success,” added Ms Inglesby-Burke, who is currently chief nursing officer for the Northern Care Alliance NHS Group.
Personally, I think it is possible to be both proud of the nursing profession and also aware that it does not always get it right and is not always perfect. And when things do go wrong, let’s be aware it is probably the system that needs examining. The blame game helps no one, but learning has the potential to help everyone.