Health: Time to say sorry

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The Independent Culture
HEALTH IS conspicuous by its absence - we notice it only when we haven't got it. Sickness is therefore linked with loss, loss invokes grief and grief is something the NHS is singularly poor at dealing with.

We've had three graphic examples of this within a week. First there were the remarkable scenes at the public inquiry into the Bristol baby deaths disaster, when Janardan Dhasmana, one of the surgeons at the centre of the case, wept as he apologised to bereaved parents.

"I wish I had not operated on those children," he said. "This is the first time in two years I have been able to speak to an audience."

For hundreds of parents caught up in the tragedy, too, it was the first time they had had a genuine, public apology. They are wrestling with unresolved emotions, unable to bring their grieving to a conclusion, and one unacknowledged function of the inquiry is to aid the healing process. Doctors, we know, bury their mistakes - they do not often weep publicly over them.

At Alder Hey children's hospital in Liverpool there was more grieving. Parents whose children died after hospital treatment have found themselves having to reopen their graves to bury organs they never knew had been taken from them. It was a medical horror story of sufficient emotional power to prompt the Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, to order an independent inquiry.

Here, too, the inquiry's function will be partly, if not wholly, therapeutic. At the time Mr Milburn made his announcement there were already three inquiries under way into the same issue. What can a fourth add - other than salve for the pain?

On Monday the High Court began hearing evidence about the amount of damages to be paid to Patricia Briody, who was left childless and wombless after a medical blunder. She is seeking the cost of a surrogate birth. Despite winning her case for negligence against St Helen's and Knowsley Health Authority after an 11-year legal battle, she has still had no apology.

What to make of these events? That somewhere along the line, the NHS lost the capacity to say sorry. Today, that failing is costing it dear.