The NHS is in a position to make “significant” efficiency savings without compromising patient safety, according to a senior Department of Health economist.

“I’m ghoulishly looking forward to the next few months because this is the real challenge. Harder times are coming”

Martin Hensher

The DH’s clinical quality information and analysis team deputy director Martin Hensher was speaking from Birmingham at the Patient Safety Congress, hosted by Health Service Journal and sister magazine Nursing Times.

Mr Hensher said: “I’m ghoulishly looking forward to the next few months because this is the real challenge. Harder times are coming.

“We know from the Budget that we will definitely face zero per cent real terms growth in the health service and probably some real reduction in expenditure.

“It’s possible public finances will get worse rather than better. The public debt situation is such that we will still be facing a very straightened environment.”

Cost effective and affordable

Safe care is more cost effective and affordable, he told delegates. But he felt there was a potential “danger” that poor management decisions would “send everything in the wrong direction”.

“There’s no question we can get quite significant efficiencies out of the NHS but we have to do it safely,” he said.

Asked how new quality indicators would help boards ask the right questions on patient safety, he said:  “It provides you with a good lever to say ‘OK, what other data have you got to show us?’

“It provides an important point of entry. But there’s a lot of work to be done to make people useful users and consumers of this data,” he added.

Commissioning primary care trusts in the audience asked about their role regarding quality accounts being drawn up by provider organisations.

He said: “You may well have a role in validating providers’ accounts before they’re published. A big debate is do you audit them in the same way we do financial accounts?”

Given this would probably cost £80m across the country, “maybe commissioners can’t be involved in absolutely everything,” he said.