Saturday 26 April 2008

Operation blues

Countless cancelled operations in the UK's health service are prolonging misery and pain for thousands of people. The latest cause is cock-ups over surgical instruments.

Surgeons say they are more and more likely to be broken, missing or dirty. In which case an entire surgical team, ready to operate, has to down tools and tell the patient to go home again.

Yet again the government has handed over a job to private businesses which are failing to do the work properly. Ward cleaning was farmed out and still isn't up to standard. Many nursing posts were farmed out to agencies, again causing lots of complaints. Now it's providing and decontaminating surgical instruments that's being screwed up.

The politicians are still besotted with the idea that private firms can do the job better than their own NHS staff, even though they've been proved wrong repeatedly.

So people like Helen R. in Leeds, whose hip operation has been postponed twice because the surgeon didn't have the right instruments, is angry and upset at such elementary blunders.

"This is supposed to be the 21st century. We're supposed to have sorted these things out" she said.

There are already tens of thousands of cancelled operations because of sick staff, vacant posts, funding problems or emergencies taking priority. A lot of operating theatres aren't even used in the evenings or at weekends.

Now even more people are finding they have to put up with that excruciating pain or disabling condition for longer than they thought because of the results of political dogma.

Clearly the politicians could do with a bit of emergency brain surgery themselves.

The BBC reports today (Sunday) that there are 10 times more deaths across the UK from the superbug clostridium difficile among over 65-year-olds than in any other country in the world. And one person dies every hour in our hospitals from this deadly infection.


  1. How appalling.

    In the US, health care is in the hands of insurance companies, not medical personnel, which is also obscene.

    It seems that if ever there were an area of life in which the dollar should not be the bottom line, our health would be it.

  2. Nick I'm a regular reader of The Biopsy Report and it stuns me that hygeine is an issue in UK and it seems particularly Irish hospitals. I can understand understaffing, long waiting times for elective surgery or even the arrival of superbugs which are a huge challenge to control - but I simply can't understand why a hospital has hygiene issues. There's no excuse whether private or public. I strongly recommend you drop in on Steph's blog now and then as she often advertises affirmative action in which people can participate to try to lobby government to get their act together

  3. I could hardly believe this post, Nick. When is the outsourcing and privatization going to stop? Now it is costing lives. And the only sufferers are the sick and the needy. You can bet all those outsource wackjobs are getting wealthy.
    the sooner we get sense about all of this the better. Healthcare should be a right. Along with water and education.

  4. Heart - Ah yes, the US system, I've heard a lot about that, it sounds much worse than the UK. Health should never be subject to the discriminatory profit principle, it should be a basic right provided by the state.

    Baino - I drop in on Steph now and again. Yes, if you're interested in medical issues, she's well worth reading. As you say, how can such a basic issue as hygiene still be such a problem? What is this, the Middle Ages?

    www - Privatisation has become a total obsession, a mania. UK politicians are terrified of re-embracing nationalisation, which got a bad reputation in the seventies and has never shaken it off. But all the damning reports on privatised services make no impression.

  5. A hospital is the last place I'd want to be with the rate of infection.

  6. Medbh, me too. I'd probably be safer being operated on in my own living room.

  7. It does sound like it's high-time they started to learn from their mistakes.

  8. Social and health care policy is my research area, and I can't tell you how often I see the disasterous results of privatisation policies. There are some places that private and corporate structures don't belong, and our hospitals are on that list!

  9. Conor - It is indeed. But ideological dogma prevents them from coming to the blindingly obvious conclusions.

    FG - There speaks the voice of experience. Of course rank-and-file NHS staff have a thousand examples of privatisation failures but who listens to them?

  10. Nick, when I heard this on the news it made me so cross too. But it has also bemused me. What cretin thought that sending surgical equipment out to be sterilized elsewhere would be a practical proposition? If I privatised the cleaning of my cutlery it would mean I needed twice as much cutlery so that I had one working set whilst the other set was away...and things being what they are I suspect I would be three teaspoons short of a canteen before the week was out. It's a no-brainer, every hospital should take care of its own stuff.

  11. Herschelian, excellent point. I hadn't thought about the need for extra sets of surgical instruments. And of course the possibility of items going missing (or getting broken) in transit. Plus, how can you monitor the decontamination process effectively if it's being done somewhere else?

  12. This is sad to read. I had fondly imagined things were better there in the UK than here in the US. Perhaps they are, in some ways. Perhaps, there, it's a little less about money and more about inefficiency. I agree with heartinsanfrancisco: it's too bad money should come before health.

  13. It seems odd that they don't just take care of sterilization in-house. It's an easy problem to fix if folks stop behaving in a bureaucratic manner.

  14. Peter - That's a good summing up, that in the UK the problem's more organisation than cash. Though the drive for cash savings is what's leading to all the outsourcing and privatisation. The politicians can't see it's a false economy.

    Liz - It must be obvious to insiders that in-house sterilisation is the most sensible option, but once the politicians have a bee in their bonnet....