Published: 01/12/2005 Volume 115 No. 5984 Page 8

Hospital chief executives should lose as much sleep over patient safety as they do about money and targets, according to chief medical officer Professor Sir Liam Donaldson.

Speaking at a three-day summit in London this week with experts from around the world, Sir Liam said the Department of Health faced a 'cultural and leadership challenge' in getting trust boards to make patient safety a priority.

'When a chief executive officer of a hospital puts her or his head on the pillow to go to sleep at night they are worrying about two things: the financial balance of their organisation and productivity targets, ' Sir Liam told delegates.

'They are not worrying or losing sleep about the quality and safety of care within their institution yet.

That is the cultural and leadership challenge for us.' Sir Liam added that each trust board needed to 'hold a mirror up to itself' and ask whether patient safety was a 'key goal'.

'It goes beyond stating safety as a requirement in the mission statement. It means the business of board agendas have to have patient safety there along with other matters.

'It means asking the question: 'Could it happen here?' It means having an open learning culture - if something serious happened, would the instincts of staff be to cover it up?' he asked.

Sir Liam argued the most important question trusts should be asking was, 'Can we demonstrate that we are getting safer each year?'. He urged them to collect data to help identify whether improvements were being made.

The summit concluded a series of health-related events which have run throughout the UK's six-month presidency of the EU.

Health secretary Patricia Hewitt opened the event on Monday and announced that the UK will provide£5m a year for the next five years to the World Alliance for Patient Safety which was established to raise awareness and political commitment to improve the safety of patients.

Ms Hewitt said: 'Member states and other countries, the European Commission and the World Health Organisation are all taking action to encourage reporting and learning from patient safety incidents and improve education and research, but we know that much more work needs to be done.'