Leader: ‘What matters in all this is patient care’

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THE decision by NHS Lothian to bring in two external bodies to investigate bullying at the health board is the right one.

It follows a PricewaterhouseCoopers report which found that employees removed up to 5000 patients from the waiting list in order to hit Scottish Government targets for the number of people treated within 18 weeks of referral. Many were offered unrealistic appointments for surgery in England and removed from waiting lists figures when they declined.

Auditors discovered that staff were manipulating figures because they felt pressured by managers not to fail on waiting times.

As this paper has said before, the thing that really matters in all of this is patient care.

Patients have been told by the heads of NHS Lothian and from Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon that this practice has ceased. The board has predicted that the excessive backlog in people waiting over 18 weeks will return to normal levels by June. This will provide some immediate reassurance to those who are waiting to be seen.

But a proper inquiry into the bullying culture is key as it will help the public understand why it was allowed to develop in the first place and put in place mechanisms to ensure it is not repeated.

Is it a lack of staff? Pressure on other resources? Or simply a style of management that has been allowed to develop over time?

Whatever occurred, patients were treated as statistics in a political game that made it appear the board were succeeding in their duties. The reality was that this large-scale manipulation left worried patients with long waits for treatment.

There may also be lessons that can be applied to Scotland’s other health boards, particularly as the report will be carried out by external bodies, thus lending it greater weight.

The inquiry will also be moving quickly, with results due to be presented to Nicola Sturgeon by the end of April.

The introduction of waiting time guarantees by the Scottish Government has been a good thing. But the bedrock of such a system has to be transparency.