Published: 07/06/2002, Volume II2, No. 5808 Page 73

Monitor has always had a great affection for the wonderful institution that is the British Broadcasting Corporation, particularly the early days of Muffin the Mule. But what's this? On Auntie Beeb's very modern online service comes the news that surgeons are 'treating fewer patients'. Worried, Monitor reads on. 'Figures from Birmingham University's health services management centre show that in some specialties, medical productivity has dropped by 20 per cent.' It goes on: 'The figures come at a time when ministers are trying to get hospitals to carry out more operations and to cut waiting times for patients, and despite record government spending on the health service.' Monitor was shocked and immediately dispatched an HSJ hackette to give the profs at Birmingham Uni a ring. Imagine Monitor's surprise when the scoop turned out to be poop. 'We haven't done a study on it, ' says Professor John Yates, director of inter-authority comparisons and consultancy at HSMC. 'But as We have said for 15 years, productivities in some specialties - but not in all - have gone down year on year.' Quizzed on the Beeb's numbers, Prof Yates is most reassuring: 'That is the latest figures, ' he says. 'But we published that in your journal. There is nothing new in this.' It is good to know that when the BBC gets overexcited - 'Some people are on the pitch! They think It is all over!' - the calm reassurance of academia puts things right.

Monitor is thrilled by Big Al's plans for foundation trusts, whose freedoms will extend to new ways to borrow loads of lovely lucre - and, of course, to cash in on the full receipts of land and asset sales. Mrs Monitor is eyeing up the garden shed already. So Monitor was cheered at the prospect of a gathering all about foundation status, featuring a tasty selection of three-star chief execs - and some particularly keen and bouncy two-star ones - assorted policy wonks and royal college big shots, not to mention another chance to examine the Swedish model. The model in question is, of course, neither Sven-Goran Eriksson, who has other things on his mind just now, nor Ulrika Jonsson. Nor, interestingly, is this one about cross-charging. It seems a smörgasbord of health-related expertise is available from Sverige, including top ideas for would-be foundations.

Monitor's excitement was clearly shared by many chief execs, a good number of them bunking off the first day of the NHS Confederation conference to be there for the great foundation event. And you can imagine Monitor's surprise that one of the four plucky trusts to put themselves forward for foundation status is Northumbria Healthcare, led by Tony Blair's favourite trust chief, Sue Page. It is not her first great leap forward, of course, for the pioneering trust chief hit the headlines last year when she made 'an extraordinary leap' into politics, endorsing Labour at a general election press conference.

But it was a sadder trip back to Confed-land for two of the NHS's more publicity-shy high fliers, spotted chatting in the spa town of Harrogate.

Could University College London Hospitals trust boss Robert Naylor and University Hospitals Birmingham supremo Mark Britnell be consoling each other as their foundation plans foundered? For the quiet and retiring pair have - whisper it - only four stars between them. Monitor does hope Big Al will manage to find an extra twinkle for each of them when rating time comes around.

Now, some good news from the army. A press release from the faculty of occupational medicine at the esteemed Royal College of Physicians spills out of the Monitor postbag, bearing tidings of great import. 'For the past 15 years, the British army has been conducting a programme of routine blood testing on its pilot population, ' it announces. Monitor understands this to mean people who fly planes, not those in a test-state of human existence.

Now give a cheer for Major Ian Curry who 'studied the results to see if they were useful to the army as a way of predicting causes of medical retirement, change of flight status on medical grounds, accidents, incidents and sudden incapacitation in flight.' But guess what? 'Major Curry found that the tests did not predict any of these factors successfully, ' the release tells us, adding: 'And as there were so few tests that resulted in a diagnosis of any sort, he was able to recommend that routine blood tests were no longer necessary, saving the army both time and money.' Hooray! But Monitor's eye somehow keeps slipping back to the opening line: 'For the past 15 years...'