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June 3, 2017

Smith: Albertans need to pay attention to others' health-care lessons

Read the article in the Calgary Herald

By Heather Smith, President of the United Nurses of Alberta

Scandals resulting from allegations of poor care and high mortality rates among patients at facilities run by Britain’s National Health Service have been big news in the United Kingdom, but largely ignored here in Alberta.

Canadians are justly proud of our excellent national system of public health care. But we should never forget that government cuts to public health-care services, pressure by right-wing governments and private-sector advocates to treat public health care as if it were a for-profit business, and the constant reorganizations by health sector managers wherever they occur, can all lead to the same kind of problems that have plagued the NHS.

Albertans should pay attention to what has happened in the U.K., because the same thing can happen here. Indeed, in some cases, it has. We may also be able to learn what the British did about the problems they discovered, and benefit from how they responded.

At 9:30 a.m. on Friday, Robert Francis will address the biennium convention of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions at the Telus Convention Centre in downtown Calgary.

Francis, a well-known British barrister who specializes in medical law, has led several important British inquiries into problems with the U.K.’s health-care system, including two investigations of a major scandal at the Stafford Hospital in the West Midlands.

Francis’s keynote speech to the convention will be open to the media and interested members of the public. Albertans who can do so are encouraged to attend.

The Stafford Hospital scandal began in the late 2000s, when staff, patients and their families became aware that too many patients were dying there. Hospital and regional health officials in the small city about 40 kilometres northwest of Birmingham reacted defensively to public calls for an explanation for the high rate of deaths, especially among patients who were admitted to the hospital’s emergency department.

Media reports suggested the number of deaths that took place at the Stafford Hospital between 2005 and 2009 was far higher than should have been expected for a facility of its size. Sensational news stories emerged about mistreatment of patients by medical staff at the hospital.

The upshot was the two inquiries headed byFrancis. The second, a full inquiry that ran from late 2010 until early 2013, considered more than a million pages of evidence from the previous investigation, as well as calling new witnesses. The result was 290 recommendations, including new requirements for openness and transparency by staff among them.

Among the findings of Francis’s report in 2013 that should be of particular concern to Albertans was that the “systemic failure” at the hospital was caused in part by “disruptive loss of corporate memory and focus resulting from repeated, multi-level reorganization.”

We need to ask ourselves: are years of constant reorganizing at Alberta Health Services having a harmful impact on the quality of care here in Alberta, too?

Everyone understands that it is important to learn from our mistakes. But it is better, obviously, if we can take advantage of the learnings of others to prevent the anguish caused by such mistakes in health care from happening here in the first place.

Heather Smith is president of the United Nurses of Alberta.