Peter Lapsley: Misleading media

Peter LapsleySurveys regularly show that whereas (approximately) 80% of people who have not used the NHS in the previous five years believe it to be dreadful, 80% of those who have used it praise it highly. The reason for so extraordinary a disparity is clear. Non users believe the popular media’s stories about the NHS, and the popular media have a far greater appetite for horror stories than for good news ones. So, those who do not actually use the NHS see it through a veil of ghastly stories of old ladies being left unfed and unwashed, of clinical errors by foreign locums and even occasionally of rogue clinicians doing wicked things. Those who do use it rarely fail to be impressed by the dedication, professionalism, and kindness of the staff who look after them.

Last autumn, my step-mother – 94 years-old, largely blind (macular degeneration), partly deaf, and almost immobile – was living in an excellent care home, when she had a stroke. She was taken into the Ipswich Hospital where she remained for about three weeks. The care she received was impeccable. The doctors and nurses went out of their way to reassure her, to make her comfortable, and to ensure she had everything she needed. Although a district general hospital is, rightly, concerned chiefly with curing the curable, there was never any sense that they would prefer that she be taken elsewhere or that they needed her bed for someone else.

Understandably, she was nervous of eventually leaving the safety of the hospital to return to the care home, but the staff there welcomed her back with open arms and cared for her meticulously until she was eventually released from this life in June this year.

Throughout this period, the popular media were full of stories of allegations of the neglect of an elderly lady at the Ipswich Hospital. I do not know the facts of that case and would not, therefore, dispute the matter with the complainant – the patient’s daughter, I believe. But it did not tally in any way with our family’s experience.

Such stories may sell newspapers and fill air time, but they can be very damaging, too. They can undermine the morale of staff, the vast majority of whom wish only to care for their patients to the best of their ability, sometimes with more modest resources than might be wished. They can undermine the confidence of patients, families, and friends in local healthcare services. And they can do much wider damage, as in the case of Daniel Hannan, the MEP recruited by the Republican Party in the United States to support their attack on Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms by rubbishing the NHS – of which he clearly had little or no experience.

Perhaps the popular media should consider “exposing” the remarkable commitment of NHS doctors and nurses, instead of repeatedly picking up occasional sad stories about our healthcare service and worrying them to death like terriers with rats.

Peter Lapsley is patient editor of the BMJ.