Incompetent nurses allowed to continue treating patients

Incompetent nurses are continuing to treat patients because investigations into their fitness to practise are being closed early and without proper authority, a report has found. Despite allegations that the public was at "serious risk of harm", investigations have been closed prematurely amid failings by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC).

The audit was carried out for the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence (CHRE). It found "very poor file and case management" within the NMC. The CHRE said it continues to receive more complaints about the NMC than about any of the eight other health regulatory bodies it oversees.

The CHRE's chief executive, Harry Cayton, said the NMC needs "to be sure that their communication both with organisations and with members of the public is improved". The audit, published on Sunday, stated: "We are concerned that the NMC has not always acted in ways that have protected the public or that would fully maintain public confidence in the professions which it regulates." It reported that the NMC displayed "poor control of delegated decision-making, and poor practices in gathering and analysing information".

The CHRE looked at cases between April 2008 and March 2009. It was so shocked by the standards it found at the NMC that it prepared a special report for the then Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, in June 2008. This week's findings reinforce those of that report.

An NMC spokesman said yesterday: "Since March 2009, we have made a number of significant improvements to our Fitness to Practise systems. These have included the introduction of an electronic case management system, decreasing the length of time between receiving an initial complaint to a hearing taking place, and significantly reducing the backlog of cases."

According to the NMC's own data, the average "fitness to practise" case still takes it more than a year to process, however. The NMC is currently responsible for investigating the conduct of at least one nurse in the aftermath of the failures at Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust.

A Department of Health spokeswoman said the NMC is expected to demonstrate it is doing everything possible to improve its performance. She said the overwhelming majority of nurses provide excellent care.