As the patient experience is vital to develop the NHS, Healthwatch should be regarded as important as Monitor and the Care Quality Commission, says Joe Irvin

Last week the review by NHS medical director Sir Bruce Keogh was published, naming 11 hospital trusts to be put into “special measures” because of new concerns about the quality of their care for patients.

‘Deference, awe and a kind of professional opaqueness have, in the past, made Britons reluctant to criticise the NHS’

Then the NHS’s new chief inspector of hospitals Sir Mike Richards announced plans for 20-strong “armies” to inspect hospitals. I would like to enter a plea: don’t forget the public.

When the Keogh review was announced my heart sank at the way politicians conducted the debate. The prime minster was statesmanlike in dealing with the Francis report on Mid Staffordshire earlier this year, standing above party politics, but last Wednesday debate became an unseemly party political spat. Extrapolated mortality figures for the 11 hospital trusts were bandied about in ways against which Keogh had specifically warned.

When dealing with a health service they cherish and issues, quite frankly, of life and death, I cannot imagine many things more distasteful to the public than seeing politicians trying to blame all the problems on the last government or the present one. And it is the public, lest we forget, which the health service is there to serve.

Deference, awe and a kind of professional opaqueness have, in the past, made Britons reluctant to criticise the NHS; we must learn that raising our concerns can improve the health service we love.

Public voice

The Care Quality Commission is the broad regulatory body for health and adult social care in England. Monitor has responsibility for hospitals and can enforce ‘special measures’ to address failings. Both are appointed bodies.

Sir Mike’s “inspection squads” will comprise health professionals, carers and patients to inspect hospitals. I am not clear yet how the patients are to be chosen or what criteria are to be used.

‘If we are to continue to raise standards we need to listen to the voices of the people’

But I would want to remind everyone concerned that we now have Healthwatch − a local community led body in each area, whose job is to be the champion of the people. Healthwatch reaches out not just to those voicing the concerns of people with specific health conditions, not just hospital patients, but also to the rest of us in our communities.

Healthwatch is in touch with voluntary and community groups dealing with older people, particular ethnic groups, disability and long term conditions, young people, and those with particular needs such as people who have experienced domestic violence. It deals regularly with carers and volunteers, working closely with those with healthcare needs. It is there to champion the public.

The health service is a national treasure staffed by people we admire. If we are to continue to raise standards we need to listen to the voices of the people − it’s not one single voice. We need to be attuned to people’s experiences of healthcare and what we want from our health service. We need to enable the public to shape the development of health services. And we need to encourage whistleblowing and act when alarm bells are rung. All this applies not only to hospitals but to GP provision and social care too.

It is estimated that almost 30 per cent of hospital beds are occupied by unnecessary admissions, added to which, needless hospitalisation is expensive and is not what people want. So in the future, the name of the game will be to reach as many of us as possible and do what is needed − living healthier and making it easier to cope at home − in order to keep us out of hospital in the first place. Using Healthwatch as the voice of the public will help achieve better results.

Joe Irvin is chief executive at the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action