Have you noticed that when national newspapers and TV news services publish a piece about the NHS they often include a statement from the Department of Health or NHS England? It is usually towards the end of the article and starts with something like “A DoH spokesperson (sometimes spokesman, never spokeswoman, never ever named) said”. I guess they include these statements to ensure balance and perhaps to try to add a touch of gravitas.
I have no problem with this in principle. I am all for free speech and hearing both sides of the argument. My issue is with the veracity, objectivity and relevance of many of these statements – more on this below.
The inaccuracies and bias in DoH and NHS England statements used to irritate me but more recently I have just ignored them. Life is far too short to get wound up about stuff that you cannot change.
And then I saw this at the end of a Guardian article entitled Jeremy Hunt accused of compromising weekday hospital care.
The Department of Health said: “The new junior doctors contract is making it easier for hospitals to roster doctors at weekends as well as improving patient safety right across the week. Working with Health Education England, we will ensure that the NHS has a further 11,000 doctors by 2020 – as well as increasing the number of medical training places by 1,500 in a year’s time.”
The essence of the article was a claim from Norman Lamb that Jeremy Hunt had damaged care of patients during the week by forcing through the new junior doctor contract before there are adequate plans in place to provide the necessary manpower. While no doubt the new contract makes it easier to roster doctors at the weekends there is no evidence that it is improving patient safety right across the week. Indeed there is current strong evidence that things are getting much less safe very quickly.
This blatant lie is then followed by a fanciful statement about increasing numbers of doctors and training places by 2020. Notwithstanding the fact that the DoH has yet to publish any details about how it is going to achieve this in the context of a flat lining budget and the fact that the increase in medical school places has also been used by the DoH to explain how they will replace the EU doctors we will lose through Brexit, the majority of serious commentators do not believe it is achievable.
My irritation rekindled I decided to have a quick look at recent DoH statements more closely. A quick Google search revealed these examples in less than 5 minutes.
In response to an article on the appalling increase in the numbers of people on the waiting list for major joint replacements. NHS England said – best ignore the problem, we blame the patients.
A NHS England spokesman said: “Actually the number of NHS-funded hip and knee operations is rising year on year, and more patients will be offered these treatments this year than last. But with a million more over 75 year olds over the next few years, demand is of course likely to continue to rise.”
In response to claims that the Department was encouraged by Jeremy Hunt to “sex up” a letter by claiming that the junior doctors strike would impair our ability to deal with a terrorist attack. The DoH said- best ignore the fact that this is political manipulation and scaremongering of the worst kind, we say it was the right thing to do.
A Department of Health spokesman said: “Industrial action of the kind planned by the BMA creates a major safety risk for patients so it was absolutely right that ministers insisted on Sir Bruce Keogh giving his independent view of the NHS’ capacity to respond in the event of a major terrorist incident.”
In response to the Chair of the Royal College of GPs saying the service will all but collapse this winter. NHS England said – well words fail me…..
An NHS England spokesman said: “Of course over the Christmas and New Year period the top priority has to be medical emergencies, but the RCGP are right to remind everyone of what they describe as the ‘most phenomenal success story of the NHS’. That’s why GP services are on track to receive an extra £2.4 billion in real terms investment by 2020 to build on this track record of success and expand access to convenient appointments throughout the week.”
There were many, many more examples.
I started to realise that it is wrong to ignore this sort of political spinning. All of these articles had very real messages that the public needs to hear and understand if they are to make informed decisions about what they want for the future of the NHS and which politicians they want in power to deliver their wishes.
It is not harmless. It undermines NHS workers who are already struggling, it frightens patients and it misinforms the public. The strong message implicit in these statements is “It’s not our fault, indeed it’s not even our problem. It’s down to incompetent NHS staff and too many people getting sick.” There is a widening gulf between what NHS staff and patients are experiencing and what the DoH and NHS England are saying. This mismatch will become increasingly divisive if it is allowed to continue.
They distort the truth in the same way that the gutter press distorts the truth. They spin political dogma and fanciful aspiration wrapped up as fact. The public might expect this from the Daily Mail and can compensate to a degree, but I believe they expect to hear the truth from the people who run the NHS. What the DoH and NHS England are doing is wrong and potentially damaging.
But perhaps there is something we can do……
What if we could find a way to tell the public about this issue? Perhaps we could collect and store examples of misleading statements in a pubic archive so that they can be easily retrieved. It would be a valuable resource for health campaigners and it may even influence the behavior of the spin doctors.
So I turned to Twitter and devised the hash tag #DoHBalls. I posted a few examples of misleading statements using the tag and there has already been considerable interest. People have posted their own examples and the library is already building.
This is not intended to be a short-term project. Statements from the DoH and NHS England are relatively infrequent so it is unlikely to trend. I am looking for a slow burn which ultimately may be more powerful than a transient trend and could potentially influence the behavior of the spin doctors. Indeed if the tag fizzles out because there is nothing to Tweet about I will be very happy.
The tag owes more than a little to Private Eye’s Colemanballs and Medicineballs. I toyed with the idea of #HuntBalls (you see what I was doing there) but dropped it in the (maybe deluded) hope that the tag will last longer than his time in office. NHSEnlandBalls did not have the same catchy feel but certainly want to include NHS England and indeed any other top level NHS departments in this process.
So please have a look at #DoHBalls on Twitter. If you want to post anything remember to add the tag and if possible include a link to the original article as well as a screenshot of the offending statement. Incidentally you need to add the screenshot picture before you add the article link when composing your tweet if you want the picture to be displayed. Tag me (@butnhs) and I will re-tweet your post.
Please do not post abusive or offensive tweets with the tag as this just undermines our case.
Social media is potentially a powerful tool to influence political behavior if we use it wisely. Please add your personal SoMe weight to this initiative.
You may also want to get involved in other aspects of the Big Up the NHS project. As well as the 54,000 people who follow the Twitter account, there is a thriving Facebook group with 52,000 members, an Instagram account and a web site.
Happy New Year