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Great Western Hospital: as the junior doctors plan their strikes, patient safety and staff shortages still top the agenda

Thursday morning (September 1) and GWH's Academy, down in the hospital's extensive basement, is full of staff from many departments and members of the board.  They were all listening to an inspiring talk on patient safety - the start of a day-long Speak Out on Safety event.

Martin Bromiley (Photo Medical Protection Society via YouTube)Martin Bromiley (Photo Medical Protection Society via YouTube)The speaker was Martin Bromiley, an airline pilot who has become a much respected expert on patient safety - speaking to and advising nurses, government ministers and NHS managers.  

Tragically, his wife died during a routine operation - due to human error.  In response he founded the Clinical Human Factors Group - a charity which seeks to help healthcare workers understand how human factors relate to patient safety and quality of care.

Thirty minutes later the board members went upstairs a couple of floors for their monthly meeting - to face so many factors that impact on patient safety.  Uppermost in their minds was the junior doctors' decision to start a series of five-day strikes, which if directors did not prepare for appropriately might also impact on patient safety.

They are today starting their planning for the strikes - but do have the experience of the junior doctors' previous two-day strikes to build on and learn from.

The strikes aside, the main risk for the GWH as the year proceeds is that it will not meet its financial target - or, in a worst case, run out of cash.  At the moment the books look pretty good once the Department of Health's top up funding arrives.  

£2.25million arrived suddenly last month - it had been expected in July.  And if GWH ticks all the right boxes, another cheque will come through in October.   

Apart from the financial squeeze, there are two major pressures on GWH at present: the Emergency Department (they call it ED, other people call it A&E), and staffing.

Basically the ED problem is that they are well away from meeting the national target of 95 per cent of people arriving at ED being treated and either sent home or admitted to a bed within four hours.  

While it is fairly simple to admit someone (if there is a free bed), it is much more complex to discharge them - especially if they are old and infirm and need care at home or somewhere else.  And 'delayed transfers of care' (DTOCs) - or blocked beds - means there may not be a bed free and so someone has to stay in the ED.

During July - "an extremely challenging month" - 7,545 attended GWH's ED - 500 more than in June and 400 more than in July 2015: "The relentless pressure in ED during the month contributed to 76 patients enduring stays of greater than 12 hours in the Emergency Department..."  

Around one in three of those 7,545 will need admitting to hospital (besides those sent directly by the GP.)  GWH should be operating with 85 per cent of its beds occupied by patients.  

At present its bed occupancy stands at 111 per cent - meaning they have brought into use every possible extra bed space they have.  Daily bed occupancy "...has not been below 100 per cent in the last two weeks of August."  

As one director pointed out: "111 per cent - with 80 patients who don't need to be there."  Which brings us to DTOCs...

There has been a summit meeting on DTOCs and Wiltshire Council has assured NHS Improvement and NHS England that its new social care provider (Mears) will sort the problem out. In July there was a rise of 83 per cent in DTOCs that was down to Wiltshire Council's inability to find appropriate after-hospital care. And the problem with Swindon's social care is yet to be resolved.

Sitting in the meeting you could feel some sympathy with the patient's story presented to the board.  After eight hours in ED, he wrote: "I think this hospital is too small for the high demand of Swindon emergencies and desperately needs more space and extra staff."

The board was told that putting in 100 extra beds was the equivalent of adding lanes to a motorway - they would give "a few days leeway" and then they would simply fill up.  However, it is clear that Swindon's population growth has out-stripped what the NHS now provides.  

But even 70 extra beds would pose the immediate problem of finding those 'extra staff'.  And shortage of staff is a severe current problem - affecting risks to patient safety as well as risks to the hospital's finances.  

Currently GWH is showing a vacancy rate of 10.5 per cent.  And a consequent rise in the spend on agency staff. Overseas recruitment is starting again and this month a new cadre of newly registered nurses from the local Oxford Brookes college starts work.

Then last week came the news that the Treasury, who apparently have not understood that the NHS is in financial difficulties, is cutting two per cent (equivalent to about £48 million) of the education and training cash paid to hospitals.  Health Education England will make the money up this year, but it will vanish from next year's budget.

Just another pressure point for a hospital confronted with a register showing 25 risks scoring 15 and over and 14 risks concerning patient safety.  Currently the top risks relate to staffing levels for unscheduled care, the design of the emergency department and patient safety on an understaffed ward.

Which gets us back to Martin Bromiley. He has learnt from the best safety systems and rules used by his own industry - aviation - by Formula One motor racing and the nuclear industry.  But it all comes down, he says, to having "rules that make it easy to do the right thing".  And of course to having the staff to work to those rules.

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  • Silbury-Sunset---10-06-08-----07
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