comment

Bristol, Alder Hey and now North Staffordshire - each is a major landmark on the long road leading inexorably to a shift in the balance of power in the NHS away from the medical profession and to the patient.

As junior health minister Lord Hunt said this week: 'There needs to be a culture change in the NHS. . . It has to be wrong that patients can be the last to know what is going on with their treatment. The patient's interests are the only vested interests that count.'

Quite so. But the process of that culture change is an agonising one, increasingly characterised by these high-profile, emotive cases. Typically, the doctors involved are revealed as arrogant and insufficiently accountable, and the governance apparatus within which they work is exposed as pathetically inadequate. It is, of course, no coincidence that each of these headline-grabbing healthcare disasters concerns children.

To be brutally frank, cases such as these are powerful weapons in the fight to overcome doctors' resistance to professional change, and the government has not been slow to seize the opportunities they offer. To that extent, good may eventually emerge from them - but at a high price, which includes as well as the suffering of the patients and their families, the confidence of the public at large in the health service itself. At a time when the NHS's future is being debated so intensely (see above) it can ill-afford for that confidence to be shaken.

Unfortunately, North Staffordshire will not be the last such scandal to emerge.