Twitter could help NHS safety, says campaigner

A bereaved father urges hospital chiefs and doctors to be more open about their mistakes
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Hospital bosses and senior doctors should be encouraged to join Twitter to talk openly to patients who have been let down by NHS hospitals, a leading safety campaigner has said.

James Titcombe, whose newborn son died five years ago after care failings at a Cumbria hospital, said that Twitter had been an “awesome, powerful tool” in his campaign to force the NHS Trust to acknowledge and learn from mistakes.

Mr Titcombe, whose campaign led to him being appointed as an adviser to the Care Quality Commission (CQC) hospital watchdog, added that a new duty of candour law for NHS organisations could be “the most fundamental change in patient safety since the beginning of the NHS”.

The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is expected to announce later this week the Government’s decision on duty of candour, which would legally oblige NHS organisations to admit to all mistakes that cause “significant harm”, after he received the findings of a review in which a coalition of patient, doctor and nurses bodies backed a new law.

Mr Titcombe said that the NHS had been blighted in recent years by a culture of “keeping problems under wraps”, which allowed care failings such as those reported at Mid Staffordshire to carry on unchecked, and forced bereaved families into long, arduous campaigns for change.

“It wasn’t the leaders; it wasn’t the politicians. It came down to sad, bereaved people to do it,” he said. “For me, social media made the difference. The spread of people that you can contact, the coming together, the working together. Twitter is an awesome, powerful tool for a campaigner. Anybody can ignore one person – you’re just a grieving dad. If there’s a group of you saying the same thing, that’s harder to ignore. Without social media I don’t think this movement would have happened.”

Joshua Titcombe died in November 2008, less than two weeks after being born, after midwives at the Furness General Hospital, part of the University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust, failed to give him antibiotics for an infection, despite his parents raising concerns. Since then, Mr Titcombe has campaigned for the trust to acknowledge and learn from what went wrong.

A 2011 inquest vindicated his claim that hospital staff had missed opportunities to save his son. Last year, an independent report accused the former CQC leadership of attempting to cover up its alleged failure to act over concerns about the hospital – allegations which have been denied. Last week, a further report from the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman criticised the trust for causing the Titcombe family “unnecessary distress and pain” by failing to be open and honest about what went wrong.

“Everywhere we went people didn’t want to know,” Mr Titcombe said. “You’re a grieving person, an angry dad. Nobody wants to know. The trust was good at giving the right spin. All you want is for lessons to be learnt.”

The Department of Health has set up an inquiry into a series of deaths of mothers and babies at the hospital between January 2004 and June 2013, led by senior public health doctor Bill Kirkup. Mr Titcombe said that he expected the report, which is due at the end of the summer, “to shock a lot of people at the scale” of what went wrong.

The trust said last week that it had “badly let down” the Titcombe family by failing to investigate properly and said it was “truly sorry” for the distress caused. Mr Titcombe added that he believes that the trust had now made its maternity unit “much safer than it was”.

He said that a duty of candour law should be known as “Robbie’s Law” after the son of fellow patient safety campaigner Will Powell, who has pushed for the law since his 10-year-old son Robbie died of a treatable disease at Swansea’s Morriston Hospital 24 years ago.

Peter Walsh, chief executive of the patient safety campaign group Action against Medical Accidents (AvMA), said a rare consensus had grown around the duty of candour law. He said that the British Medical Association, Royal College of Nursing, Royal College of General Practitioners, Healthwatch England, National Voices and AvMA have urged Mr Hunt to make the law applicable to all mistakes which caused significant harm, rather than restricting it to those that caused death or permanent disability, as had been proposed.

“It would be a tragedy if their voices were now to be ignored,” Mr Walsh said. “Placing a restriction on the duty of candour makes no sense and may actually make things worse.  Bringing in a full duty of candour would be the biggest advance in patients’ rights and patient safety since the creation of the NHS.”