Unless you have managed to miss every news story that has anything to do with the NHS in the last five years, you have probably heard an at least passing reference to ‘the failings at mid Staffordshire general hospital’. You probably haven’t heard as much about how we have improved our performance and are now one of the best rated in the area. You may even have missed reports about how, despite these improvements, we are now in administration and many services and jobs (including mine) are under threat. I am now proud to be employed by mid Staffordshire general hospitals, but this has not always been the case.
The Francis Inquiry was commissioned in 2010 following reports of higher than expected death rates at the hospital, and was pretty clear in its findings that there were multiple cases of unacceptable neglect between 2005 and 2009 that led to unnecessary suffering and preventable death. The Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt will decide today whether to dissolve the trust that runs Stafford Hospital. It is not my place to comment on what happened, or why, but it is my place to share a few reflections on working at an institution that has been so shamed, and the questions it raises.
Should I feel ashamed? When you hear the stories in the report, and know you were in the building at the time (whether involved or not), you feel ashamed. The only way not to, would be to build up a wall of defensiveness and excuses, that can’t with any integrity be maintained.
Was I to blame? Ok, well obviously not entirely, but I have had to wrestle with whether I was in any way complicit, and whether I could have done more. Uncomfortably, the answer is possibly, yes. Although I didn’t personally witness anything I would describe as neglect, I knew that the hospital was not as safe as it could be, that we didn’t have the resources to do everything we wanted to, but what public service does? Perhaps I could have had more open eyes, I could have raised an alarm. But the fact that you could have done something differently does not always mean you should have done. I worked with the information I was given, and when you ask “is this normal?” and are told “this is just how it is” then it is too easy to accept things. Through our history, change has been brought by people asking the right questions, not ’is this normal?’ but ’is this right?’. Which means we need to know how we tell whether something is right or wrong, and this is more complicated in practice than in theory. In all situations there are probably rules that have to be bent to make the world go around, we just need to work out which ones, and how much flexibility there should be. There have been times in my professional life when to not bend the rules, would have put patients in danger. There are times in all institutions, including churches when you have to keep your head down, and ignore something you don’t like, and times when we must recognise the wrongs and speak up.
Who do I trust? Well, not the media. Trusty campaigners have time and again presented them with the truth, but they cast it aside in favour of sensational stories that allow the public to tut-tut and cry “shame on you”. They have simplified the complex and hijacked suffering to meet the needs of a pre-set narrative. And although I’m not one for bemoaning politicians, it is utterly de-moralising to see my local hospital thrown around as ammunition to back up whatever argument they want to make in prime minister’s question time, with no-one willing to admit any fault, or show any evidence of asking themselves the kind of questions that I am left asking myself.
What have I learnt? When all the questions have settled, I am left a humbler version of my old self. I have always thought that I was brave enough to fight injustice, but it turns out that when I was faced with it, I was too busy to see it. That it wasn’t fear but the power of the staus quo and ignorance of how things should be that got in the way. Recognising a wrong culture is much easier from the outside than the inside.
It has also taught me to be generous when we hear of mistakes that have been made. Having 20:20 hindsight, however enhanced from our elevated moral high-ground, is not helpful and only serves our own ego. We must be cautious whenever we find ourselves thinking ’well, I’d never have made that mistake‘. Trust me , it’s a long and uncomfortable fall.
And ultimately, this situation has reminded me that I am not the saviour of the world. I do have a role to play in fighting injustice, but I can’t rely on my own wisdom and heroism. I need to rely on God every day to help me see things the way He sees them. And more than that, that we follow the great redeemer, who can take flawed people, in broken institutions, and use them for good. And really, that is the answer to all the other questions.