Is the government in danger of trying too hard on patient safety?

On paper, the Department of Health has failed to deliver a “key element” of its patient safety strategy. A little-noticed paragraph in Lord Darzi’s interim report in October 2007 called for the setting up of Patient Safety Direct, a national one stop shop where staff and the public could report safety incidents.

Health minister Ann Keen promised implementation would begin by the end of last year, but it has now emerged it will not be ready before 2010.

However, it is far from clear the system is needed.

The project is expected to cost £12m over three years to implement. Almost two years after it was first mooted there is still no decision on what exactly the hotline will do or what it will deliver.

The National Patient Safety Agency has found trusts do not want yet another national reporting system, while HSJ is unaware of any study which demonstrates a national hotline is a cost effective solution to remaining patient safety shortcomings.

Patient safety is becoming one of this government’s health policy successes. Across the service there are staff proud of what they have achieved and determined to do more. The NHS is already peppered with local, regional and national projects which are making a difference.

By contrast, a national hotline runs the risk of becoming a vast and expensive bureaucracy which does little to improve care. It could end up fielding calls on everything from an empty soap dispenser to a serious clinical error, made by everyone from a vexatious relative to a consultant who has seen lives put in danger. Connecting this central operation up to the rest of the NHS in a way which delivers timely changes in the practice and culture of local management and the clinical front line would be a vast undertaking with no guarantee of success. Indeed, it could easily become a distraction.

Ministers need to be certain that a time consuming and expensive national patient safety hotline is going to deliver improvements which cannot be achieved more quickly for less money by another route. Patient Safety Direct must not become a solution looking for a problem.

NHS patient safety hotline delayed