As a retired hospital doctor, my work in the NHS was a huge advantage when I started as an MP, because I already knew many consultants and GPs, as well as managers of all the local health trusts.
One of my surprises at Westminster was to discover how few of the MPs were doctors and nurses. A small number of lay MPs had an excellent knowledge of the NHS, but many were not as well informed. Also, particularly among back bench Labour MPs, there was general antipathy towards the medical profession, especially NHS hospital consultants, as all the rumours about excess private practice were believed.
Following the general election, many new MPs will still be finding their feet both in London and in their constituencies, especially if they are not local people but party favourites parachuted in to safe seats. New MPs will soon realise how important the NHS is to their constituents and will wish to enlarge their knowledge by meeting all chief executives of health trusts, both commissioners and providers in their areas.
However, I recommend that chief executives do not wait for their MP to get in touch, but to invite him or her soon to a one-to-one meeting. At this, future meetings could be arranged to tour NHS facilities and to meet key staff, medical, nursing and managerial and both executive and non-executive directors.
If the MP is new to the area, a profile of local NHS facilities, local problems, local areas of deprivation and your needs would be helpful, especially if it was on no more than one side of A4. Also, in slightly more detail, a briefing on how you are tackling the main problems that the NHS generally is facing would be useful. Here, I would include patient safety issues, including your local measures to ensure safety and quality of care covering dignity, communication and continuity if you are a provider trust.
If you are a commissioning trust you should describe how you enforce safety and quality through strict monitoring of contracts with your provider trusts. An explanation of the necessary non-technical skills for clinical staff would help and how you are preventing “never” events.
Another major problem will be how you intend to cope with the inevitable economies that are going to have to be made throughout the NHS and how you are going to protect clinical services for patients.
If you are going to have to make cuts absolute honesty is essential. Spin, sadly, is for politicians, but trust chief executives must avoid it. A relevant article appeared in The Guardian by Penny de Valk on 31 March 2010. While discussing the biggest challenge, she quoted the chief executive of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives as follows: “It’s raining out there and people don’t want to be told [by managers] it’s sunny. They want to know where the umbrellas are.” A lesson for all of us.
Your MP needs to know about your complaints policy, because sooner or later he or she will get complaints that may or may not be justified and the MP must know the route to take to advise constituents how to resolve these. The Mid-Staffordshire disaster has made everyone aware of the need for an easily understood staff whistle-blowing policy. Your MP must be aware of this too.
One of the powerful weapons for back bench MPs is the opportunity to initiate Adjournment Debates on constituency matters and offers of help towards these to raise burning local NHS concerns would be welcome to most new MPs keen to establish their reputations.
When the first tranche of Better Care Better Value Indicators came out some years ago I was amazed to discover that even serving health ministers at the time were not putting pressure on their own PCTs to improve when, for example, three of their PCTs were among the worst for generic statin prescribing. Close co-operation between chief executives and their MPs would surely have improved this state of affairs. The opportunities are there. Please take them!
Dr Richard Taylor is a former MP for Wyre Forest