Yesterday, some 50,000 people packed the streets, squares and parks of Stafford to march in support of their local hospital and against plans by Monitor, backed by the Department of Health (DH) to close it and force patients to travel long distances for treatment. I live a long way from Stafford and wasn’t able to attend, but this picture (like many others) sends shivers up my spine:
This is what happens when people realise they face the threat of losing their hospital – and when they see the media headlines for the dross they generally are.
But the ‘news’papers have no intention of letting up on their ever-increasing campaign to demonise our health-workers and erode public confidence in, and affection for, our NHS. This morning, the Express and the Mail printed different but similar stories, both equally cynical and equally misleading – and very typical of how stories are slanted in the current anti-NHS campaign to appear far more damaging than they really should.
The Mail decided to ride on the coat-tails of the ‘Support Stafford Hospital’ march, by arranging to photograph a local lady who claims that the hospital cost the lives of 3 family members as she stood in the vicinity of (but palpably not right next to) the march route wearing a home-made sign saying, “My husband drank out of a vase. Where were you then?”
Once you look at the details of the story with an objective eye, however, a very different picture emerges.
The article quotes Heather Wilhelms’ claims that the hospital was responsible for the deaths of her husband, mother and father over a period of 18 months:
They went into that hospital to get the treatment and care to make them better. Instead, one by one, they came out of that place in their coffins.
But the facts of the case, even as presented by the newspaper, do not support the assertion. Let’s look at the very sad cases in turn:
Speaking to the Telegraph at the time, she told how doctors failed to notice her mother Pauline Nicklin, 71, had two cancerous tumours on her ovaries for two years before she died in 2006.
My own mother died of ovarian cancer – a disease that has one of the worst survival-rates of any cancer, primarily because its nature and location means that it is rarely discovered until it is well advanced. Those who survive the disease are often those lucky enough to have it discovered by ‘accident’ in the course of treatment for something else. There is nothing at all in this situation to indicate any fault on the part of the hospital.
Nine months later, her father Percy went to the hospital with a deadly foot infection, but was sent home without treatment.
Convinced something was wrong, Mrs Wilhems took him back where he was diagnosed with blood poisoning and gangrene and died four days later aged 76.
Hmmmm. This gentleman clearly shouldn’t have been sent home if he had septicaemia and gangrene – but in an A&E unit as overstretched as Stafford’s is known to have been, things get missed. But did this oversight lead to his death? The article states that he was taken straight back to the hospital where his condition was diagnosed, so there was no significant period where he sat at home untreated while his condition worsened – his treatment started the same day, so we have to conclude that he would unfortunately have died anyway. The ‘sent home’ episode was irrelevant to his death.
That leaves Mrs Wilhelms’ husband, about whom the article says,
Her husband Tom was also treated at the hospital before he died from a lethal lung disease but Mrs Wilhelms again complained of appalling conditions.
The article doesn’t specify what the lung disease was, but by calling it ‘lethal’ it makes plain that he was going to die anyway. It is uncontested that there was poor care in 3 wards at Stafford – although it is largely ignored by the press and completely ignored by Jeremy Hunt, the Francis report makes absolutely clear that this was because these wards were woefully understaffed. However, it is also clear that while the poor care may have been uncomfortable and embarrassing (and as unacceptable to staff as it was to patients and relatives), it did not lead to ‘excess deaths’. It appears that Mr Wilhelms would have died no matter what the hospital did or did not do.
The article is also misleading in its photos. Mrs Wilhelm’s home-made sign about her husband drinking from a vase makes no mention of the fact that he was on ‘restricted fluids’ for medical reasons – in other words, he wasn’t permitted to drink for his own sake, perhaps because of kidney problems or very low sodium levels, or because some other condition required it. Not necessarily comfortable, but right – he might well have felt thirsty, and may have found a vase to drink from even though they were banned in the hospital since the 1990s, but his thirst was not the result of any neglect. Quite the contrary, in fact.
Mrs Wilhelms has my sympathy as a bereaved person. The Mail, which has cynically exploited her for the political ulterior motive of denigrating the NHS and detracting from the impact of the ‘Support Stafford’ march, most emphatically does not.
The Express, meanwhile, ran a short but prominently-headlined article titled “No let-off for those guilty of needless deaths in hospitals“. This begs two questions, of course – were there needless deaths and was anyone ‘guilty’ of them – but the Express is hardly a stranger to unfounded assumptions.
The paper tries hard to paint a very incriminating picture of the quality of healthcare provided by Basildon Hospital, but in fact manages only to expose its own bias and ignorance. In relating the story of the sad death of a woman in the hospital, it proclaims:
RITA PACE was 56 when she collapsed in a toilet and bled to death without anyone coming to her aid.
However, the detail tells a very different story from the headline.
It sounds like the futile end of some loveless junkie.
It is, in fact, the preventable death of a beloved mother who died needlessly at Basildon Hospital in Essex from an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm.
Leaving aside the fact that the assumption that all junkies are ‘loveless’ is self-evidently untrue, the Express betrays its ignorance and its agenda.
An ‘aortic aneurysm’ is an extremely serious condition – a ‘ballooning’ of a blood vessel when the vessel wall weakens. Any aneurysm is very bad news – but an aneurysm of the aorta, part of the heart and the largest artery in the human body, is very, very, very bad news. It is also a condition that is usually unknown even to the person suffering from it until a very advanced stage or else if it is discovered ‘accidentally’ in the course of a procedure or investigation for another condition.
If an aortic aneurysm leaks, and you are on the operating table, you have a chance of survival if the leak is slow and the surgeon is prepared and very capable. If it bursts, it doesn’t matter where you are – you will be dead in moments.
The Express therefore misleads on at least three fronts:
- Mrs Pace’s death was anything but ‘preventable’. She would, sadly, have been dead seconds after the aneurism burst whether she was in a toilet or in an operating theatre.
- The article does not say whether Mrs Pace was even a patient at the hospital. She may have been visiting someone. If she was a patient, she was evidently there to be treated for something else, since the aneurysm was undiagnosed. There is no suggestion of any neglect or misdeed by the hospital, which can hardly be blamed for not detecting a condition that is basically undetectable unless you are either very lucky or specifically looking for it.
- If Mrs Pace was able to go to the toilet unaided, there is no reason to expect her to be accompanied by a nurse or healthcare assistant. An aneurysm would not make her incapable of doing so, and there is no indication that she had any condition that would. Hospitals are short-staffed even for providing essential care, so to imply that every toilet or other room in the hospital should have a member of staff constantly present is simply nonsensical.
The article then makes some wider statements that are no less seriously misleading:
Rita is among up to 2,500 patients who have died unnecessarily at Basildon in the past decade. What emerges is a shameful litany of neglect, incompetence and malpractice to rival any of the horrific cases catalogued in the Francis Report into Stafford Hospital.
We’ve already seen that Rita’s death – though unquestionably tragic – was not ‘unnecessary’ or avoidable. It was just a sad, tragic event. This should immediately raise suspicion about the claim of ‘2,500 patients who have died unnecessarily’ – and rightly so.
The Express tries to damn Basildon by comparing it with Stafford – but as I have demonstrated in various articles, there was no issue of ‘excess’ or ‘needless’ deaths at Stafford. Its ‘HSMR’ mortality statistics were entirely the result of problems with the data on which the statistics were based, problems with the way the data was entered, and problems with the statistical method itself.
If this was the case at Stafford, there is no reason whatever to assume that there have been excess ‘needless’ deaths at Basildon. All hospitals have avoidable deaths, because treatment is provided by people and people are fallible – the right treatments can never be administered exactly at the right time, every time, and staff can never be everywhere at once. But the mortality statistics are so unsound that they should not, must not be used to quantify a number of ‘avoidable’ deaths – which is exactly what the Francis Report cited by the Express said.
There was unquestionably poor care at Stafford – in only 3 wards out of many. But this poor care did not lead to ‘excess’ deaths – once the data was corrected, the hospital’s death rate was significantly below average. There may well have been poor care in some instances in Basildon – but that does not mean that ‘avoidable’ deaths happened that would not have happened with the best possible care.
But then, the Express has never been shy of overreaching in its attempts to distort and prejudice.
The only real value in either of these reports is that they give away so clearly the blatant bias of the right-wing press – and its blatant agenda to blacken the public’s perception of, and affection for, the NHS that almost all of us rely on, or soon enough will.
It’s vital that we don’t fall for the shameless, distorted propaganda. So please spread the word and let’s shine a spotlight on these ridiculously twisted articles for what they are.