Jill Palmer On patient involvement

Published: 02/09/2004, Volume II4, No. 5921 Page 17

Few people will be upset by the government's decision to scrap the Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health - because few people even knew it existed.When the multimillion pound agency finally disappears from the health agenda some time next year it will certainly not result in the public outcry that met the abolition of Community Health Councils.

We all knew where we stood with CHCs. They provided a public platform to ensure views on the health service were heard by the right people. They supported complainants, represented public interests and were easy to contact, through the telephone directory.

They were not perfect. But the whole system was there, was wellknown and for the most part, well-respected.

Sadly patient forums, which took over from CHCs under the umbrella of the CPPIH, have never had the same high profile.

Despite extensive publicity to recruit the 5,000 forum members and an excellent website that explains their work, the vast majority of people do not realise forums exist, let alone know what they do.

Even forum members themselves admit they would like to be more in the public eye, but believe lack of administrative support and finances - all overseen by the CPPIH - is holding them back.

Hopefully the demise of the CPPIH will change all that. The government insists it is determined to devolve power to patients. It has promised to safeguard the forums when the CPPIH is axed.

If that is going to be the case, then someone has got to push patient forums higher up the public agenda.We do not want them hidden, like something we would rather not have to deal with.

And most trust managers agree that an active and informed patient lobby is the key to vital changes in the NHS.

This will hopefully be demonstrated nationally next week when patient forums carry out a cleanliness inspection in trusts all over the country and pinpoint ways to help beat MRSA, which is probably the biggest fear of every person going into hospital.

Forum members will visit trusts to check a key number of indicators such as availability of sinks and how often staff wash their hands.

They will also survey patients, medics, nurses, and office staff - anyone willing to suggest ways of improving hygiene - whether it be to bring back in-house domestic staff or insist doctors wear white coats (ideas that I support wholeheartedly, as does every other member of the public I have spoken to).

As one forum member explained to me: 'When I worked behind the cheese counter at Sainsbury's I was not allowed to travel to the supermarket in my work clothes for fear of contamination.How come nurses can wear their uniforms outside the hospital?'

People at grass-roots level often come up with the best and cheapest solutions. Patients and public see things from a different perspective to health professionals. Learning from them should be encouraged. Patient forums should be encouraged and promoted.

The demise of the CHCs and the CPPIH were part of a bigger political agenda, but that must not stop patient involvement. It would suit some people if patients' voices were muted.We must make sure this does not happen.