We’re supposed to think of the ‘caring professions’ – doctors, nurses, and teachers, for example - as somehow different from the rest of us. I used to be a teacher in a London comprehensive, and I was always sceptical about the superior humanity of my colleagues. They seemed no worse than people I knew from other walks of life, but also no better.
I recalled this when I heard an item on the Today programme, about how easy it would be to reduce deaths from botched operations. According to The Times,
“Nearly 130,000 surgical safety incidents were reported to the NHS National Patient Safety Agency (NPSA) in 2007, of which more than 1,000 resulted in “severe harm” and 271 resulted in a patient’s death. But even simple precautions such as checking the identity of the patient, taking a roll-call of the surgical team and ensuring appropriate equipment and supplies are available before surgery, could significantly reduce these risks, an international study [by the World Health Organisation] found.”
So far, so good. By following a simple two-minute procedure, just going through a basic checklist, “deaths from botched operations may be cut in half”. The study of over 7,000 operations, with half using the checklist and half not, showed that the checklist reduced deaths from 15 per one thousand operations to 8. In 2007, there were over 1,000 safety incidents in the NHS (that's counting only the ones actually reported by the profession itself) that resulted in "severe harm", and 271 that resulted in death. The checklist would therefore save more than one hundred lives a year, and five hundred cases of "severe harm", for very little effort.
Now get this, as reported in The Times: “Surveyed after the trial, 20% of clinicians who used the list said that they did not think it would make much difference to the outcome of surgery” – but the researcher added: “When we asked them whether, if they were going in for an operation themselves, they would like to it to be used, 90 per cent said yes, which was very revealing.”
Also revealing is that the government has said the new practice would be implemented “within a year”. Why not within a month? Or a week? Think of the outcry we (rightly) saw when Baby P was allowed to die through mismanagement - but we appear willing to wait a year to stop a host of unnecessary deaths, presumably to allow an arrogant segment of medical profession to accept that they make simple and easily avoidable mistakes which kill people.
The NPSA, by the way, happens to be one of Blair's successes, rather bravely acknowledging that many simple errors are made in the NHS resulting each year in many deaths. (The numbers we have are bound to under-estimate the true number of easily-avoidable deaths because they rely, inevitably, on the profession reporting its own mistakes). When formulating policy for our health service, we must not make the assumption that the caring professions can be automatically be relied on to do what's right.