Friday, August 10, 2007

Scottish patients tiring of health staff shortages

STAFF shortages have led to a surge in the number of complaints about NHS services in the Lothians. An average of nearly five formal complaints were made every day in the first three months of the year, new figures show. The most common concerns related to clinical treatment, the attitude and behaviour of staff, and the date of appointments. But there was a big rise - from four to 25 - in complaints about the shortage or availability of staff.

One hospital worker today told how her department rarely has enough staff, which she said lowers morale and affects patient care.

The level of dissatisfaction was higher than last year, when an average of four complaints were received every day - the highest number in Scotland.

Margaret Watt, chairwoman of the Scotland Patients Association, said she was not surprised. "We have a shortage of nurses and doctors, and patients have come to us with complaints about the shortages," she said. "Staff morale is low and this needs to be addressed across the country. It is a frightening time for the NHS."

Last week it was revealed how Scots doctors have been forced to quit the UK because they cannot find permanent posts in the NHS. Recent figures also showed how wards at the ERI [Edinburgh Royal Infirmary] maternity centre were left short-staffed on 30 occasions in the first three months of the year.

NHS Lothian has one of the lowest rates of sickness for health boards in Scotland - although the problem has worsened at the ERI in recent years - and has also managed to recruit dozens of new nurses to fill gaps. It now has one of the lowest number of nursing vacancies in the country, at 137.

One worker at the maternity unit in St John's Hospital, Livingston, said the service there was poorly staffed. She said: "Very rarely do we have the full complement of staff and we commonly work without adequate breaks. "This causes a great deal of stress, with more staff becoming demoralised and disillusioned, having a direct impact upon the standard of patient care"

Between July and September last year, 351 complaints were made, rising to 377 in the last quarter, and up to 440 in the first three months of this year. Among the most recent batch, 84 related to clinical treatment, 54 to the attitude and behaviour of staff, and 50 to the date of an appointment. There were also complaints about communication, hospital delays, and the catering and cleanliness in buildings. Of the 440 complaints, 44 were upheld, 178 were partly upheld and 136 were dismissed, with 37 still outstanding. NHS Lothian has taken action on a range of issues as a result.

Heather Tierney-Moore, director of nursing with NHS Lothian, said: "We are committed to transparency and see every aspect of patient feedback, be it complaint or compliment, as an opportunity either to learn what we are doing well or identify where improvements may be required. "We are concerned when we receive complaints, even if those complaints are subsequently not upheld. The winter months are traditionally a period where our hospitals and facilities are very busy, and we saw just under 260,000 patients in hospitals during January to March this year. We received 440 complaints - 0.104 per cent of patient activity. "In order to fully examine our service, our policy is to use a very wide definition for complaints and this can include situations where people are seeking further clarification on our service.

She added: "Wherever staff shortages or the perception of staff shortages are raised, the issue is investigated and addressed if necessary. We have increased the number of nurses we employ, and have made a tremendous effort in recruitment and in developing family-friendly flexible working arrangements. We also have a very active system for monitoring and maintaining safe staffing levels."


Minister admits NHS is failing on dementia

About 600,000 people afflicted by dementia are being let down by the NHS and local authority social services, a health minister admitted yesterday. Ivan Lewis, minister for care services, said the disease "strikes fear into the hearts of all of us". The number of sufferers is set to double over the next 30 years as more people survive into their 80s and 90s. Mr Lewis promised a new strategy to improve dementia services by next summer to increase awareness of the disease, provide earlier diagnosis and better treatment.

The high court will rule on Friday on a challenge to a decision by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence that those suffering from moderate dementia should not have access to a range of drugs on the NHS. But Mr Lewis said the row over medication was not the main issue. "We know too many families feel the current NHS and social care systems are not meeting their needs. The current system is failing too many dementia sufferers and their carers," he said when announcing the strategy at St Charles hospital in North Kensington, London. It was time to lift the disease "out of the shadows", providing much better information to help people detect the first signs of dementia, and specific training for healthcare staff.

Mr Lewis was supported by Barbara Pointon, whose husband Malcolm, a pianist and composer, suffered from dementia. Some of his final days were documented for the controversial ITV programme, Malcolm and Barbara: Love's Farewell, which will be screened tomorrow. She said the new strategy was "wonderful".

Gordon Lishman, director general of Age Concern, said he strongly welcomed the announcement. But Help the Aged's head of policy, David Sinclair, said the strategy failed to give enough priority to research into prevention and treatment.


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