If you’ve visited this blog before, you’ll know that I’ve written on various occasions about the general Tory tactic of eroding public support and sympathy for a section of the workforce or population before targeting the same group for cuts or theft of support or conditions. In particular, I’ve written how Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s escalated attacks on the NHS can be read and even predicted by watching the press for negative articles on the NHS.
The Daily Telegraph today published an article claiming that some hospitals are putting patients on the ‘Liverpool Care Pathway’ earlier than justified as a cost-saving measure. Now you might think that making such an accusation would highlight the insanity of the government’s cuts and the pressure that these are putting on the managers and clinical staff of the NHS. But the article quickly slants toward accusing doctors of not obtaining proper consent from patients while they are still able to communicate, and to the idea that LCP pathways are used even when natural death would be equally peaceful and pain-free, or even more so.
In the overall context of the way the right-wing press collaborates with the government to spread ‘helpful’ propaganda in preparation for attacks on the NHS, there’s a devious logic to this. Bear with me until the end I’ll explain it.
First, I want to take a look at the Liverpool Care Pathway itself, and the way it’s used in caring for the terminally ill. You see, I have experience of ‘the pathway’ from both ends. Going on 9 years ago, my terminally-ill mother was put on it for the last fraction of her life.
My mother was a remarkable lady. You’d expect me to say that, of course, but it’s true. From a very deprived background, she self-educated to the point where she could speak decent German and was widely read (and highly opinionated!). She looked after myself and my brothers until we were in our teens, then did a variety of jobs starting as a hospital cleaner, through working in a Greggs, to passing her qualifications to be able to work with special needs adults. She wrote poems, wrote one for her grave when she found out she was dying, and recorded a message to be played for everyone at her funeral, telling us all not to waste time being sad and she’d see us on the other side in a while. I had to give the eulogy at the service, and I joked – but not really – that she couldn’t stand the thought of someone else getting the last word!
Quite a woman. And not least in the way that she faced a 2-year battle against ovarian cancer without an ounce of self-pity and with an eagerness to get involved with other sufferers to encourage them not to despair.
Eventually, at the end of 2003, she went downhill rapidly and we knew she wasn’t going to last much longer. For the last few weeks, she was marvellously cared for in the local hospice, where of course she made friends with other patients to cheer them up because ‘there’s always somebody worse off’.
I had the privilege of being with her through the last 24 hours or so, along with my dad. She died on the morning of 15 December. The day before, she was becoming more and more distressed. The cancer had eaten its way up into her lungs, which were gradually filling with blood and fluid – drowning her from the inside out. This very proud and self-sufficient lady was struggling not to worry us, but it was clear she was very anxious and panicky. Who wouldn’t be?
The nurses came to talk to my dad and me, suggesting that it was time that we had to think about sedation. It would mean my mum was unaware of her last hours, but it would prevent her distress. This kind of sedation is one of the key elements of the LCP, to prevent unnecessary pain and distress and to allow a patient to sleep peacefully through those last hours. But of course, it also means that we – and she, once they’d explained it to her and offered her the choice – had a last few minutes together, knowing those were the last few minutes we’d be able to communicate.
I won’t tell you the details of those few minutes, but I’m sure you can imagine that they’re among the most bittersweet in memory of my whole lifetime so far. It was a quiet agony to hold my mum’s hand as the kind, gentle nurse slipped the needle carefully into her arm, then watch her eyes close for the last time. But it was also a massive release – a kind of emotional exhalation – to know that she wasn’t suffering any more. She died about 16 hours later – we were ‘lucky’, in that the progression of her disease meant that she died quite rapidly and the issues of nutrition and hydration didn’t need to be addressed.
My experience from the ‘other end’ comes from the fact that I’m married to a nurse who works on a ward where a high proportion of the patients are going to die from their disease at some point sooner or later, and often sooner.
My wife gets very emotionally-attached to her patients. Part of our routine after every shift – whether that’s at tea-time, late on a night or over breakfast if she’s been on a night-shift – is to talk (well, I mostly listen and sometimes prompt) through her shift. She needs to talk out the pent-up emotion to be able to deal with it, especially if she needs to sleep imminently.
As a result, I get to know her patients quite well – though always anonymously to protect their privacy – and particularly to see how the ups and downs of caring for them affects my wife. When she tells me that the time had come for a particular patient to be put onto ‘end of life’ (her hospital’s shorthand for the LCP), her eyes will fill up as her sympathy for the patient and their loved ones wells up. If she knows a few days ahead, and from her long experience she often does, that the moment is approaching for a patient, it will weigh on her mind through all that period. More so as she knows she needs to treat that patient just the same and not show distress or an extra-solicitous manner that will increase the patient’s anxiety.
Nurses have to do that – force down their own emotional reactions so that patients don’t see them and have it add to their own distress. They have to show just the right amount of care and compassion, or else they make things harder for the patients. And, just occasionally, they have to cover for each other while one of them goes out of the ward if they can’t hold back the tears.
Nurses also have a veto – a certain amount of discretion – in the administration of the LCP. Doctors – who are no less diligent and caring for the most part, but of whom I have much less direct experience – do, if they’re inexperienced, occasionally prescribe the pathway a little early according to the judgment of the nurses. But the nurses can delay its beginning if they’re not convinced the time is right yet – and if necessary they can refer up the medical ladder for confirmation of their instincts.
But always, when it eventually happens, it’s a deep trauma for the clinical staff. Less acute than for the grieving loved ones, but more chronic, more cumulative. A daily diet of small, and sometimes larger, griefs.
All of which is a way of underlining that there’s really no possibility of staff putting patients onto the pathway a moment earlier than they judge to be not only clinically justified, but also the kindest thing for the dying patient.
I promised to explain the devious logic of the kind of article that the Telegraph published today. Even though they started off the article by naming the need to save money as being the context for the decision, by subtly switching the emphasis onto the medical staff’s supposed lack of due procedure and medical justification for ‘pathway’ decisions, they’re setting hospitals and trusts up as targets. Targets the government can then shoot at along these lines:
‘Well, cuts are unavoidable in these difficult times – but clearly NHS trusts are failing to adapt to those cuts in clinically and morally acceptable ways. This is bad for patients – so we need to put everything even more quickly into the hands of private enterprise, into the hands of people who know how to cut costs and still maintain service standards. People who will do a better job – and prevent suffering and distress.’
Of course, it’s all absolute hogwash – a narrative to justify the unjustifiable. A fiction – because it is a fiction to say that if money’s tight, you can improve things by adding a profit-requirement to the costs.
If – and it’s a planetary-sized ‘if’ – a hospital or a doctor were to be bringing forward even marginally the deaths of patients purely in order to save cost, then that would demonstrate one thing only. It would demonstrate that this government is imposing such unrealistic, unachievable cuts that doctors were pushed to the end of a tether – and then pushed even further until the tether snaps. And the fault would lie with the imposers of the cuts, not on the broken staff.
Keep an eye on the news media over the next few weeks. There will almost certainly be more stories along these lines. And then, either announced or by stealth, the government will use them as an excuse to speed up privatisation measures, dressed up as rescue-missions to prevent suffering.
But when you see these stories, just remember this article – and remember that there’s no way that doctors and nurses will be implementing the LCP early. It’s just too emotionally damaging. I know that – I’ve seen it, from both ends.
But there is a group of people who stand far enough away from the suffering not to experience it or be moved by it – far enough to care only about profits and their own narrow ideology.
Those are the ones we should be pointing the finger at.
Those are the ones that should be accused…
Postscript: My best friend made the first comment on this post – and if anything, it’s an even more eloquent testimony to the value and, yes, heroism of our NHS and its staff. Please make sure to read it before you leave. Thank you.