Why our NHS should listen and be human

In February, the Patients Association published the report: Why our NHS should listen and be human

This drew together common themes from all the helpline calls we received during 2014, plus other information from focus groups, listening events and surveys over that year.

Some people had really positive experiences, but a common theme among those who raised concerns was poor communication and a lack of information from health and social care staff.

Patients and families told us they want to be kept informed about events affecting their health and social care, but many felt they were not told what was going on, even in times of great stress. One caller caring for her mother told us: ‘No one ever calls me if something changes. How am I supposed to find out what's going on?’

People accepted that health and social care staff may not be able to answer all their questions or address all concerns raised, but they said that saying nothing, or not passing on vital information, can undermine trust between patients and staff. For some patients, poor communication was a constant theme throughout their care, from diagnosis and treatment to aftercare.

Poor experiences could be explained (but not excused) by staff being overworked and not having the right skills or training. Many people accepted that staff are often busy, but they were clear this should not prevent patients and families from being kept in the loop, and it certainly does not excuse the lack of compassion from some staff. One caller told us that staff members regularly had a ‘raised, aggressive tone’.

Communication between staff is vital to ensure patients get the right care. One caller told us her mother’s operation had been cancelled at least three times. On the last occasion it was cancelled on the morning of the operation because she was still on blood-thinning drugs that should have been stopped ten days before the operation.

So what can be done differently? Here are some recommendations based on our report:

  • Health and social care professionals need to explain diagnosis in a simple and easy-to-understand way to reduce patients’ anxiety.
  • Communication about treatment options should be transparent, with any risks or side effects clearly explained so that patients and relatives can make informed decisions.
  • Reasons for delayed or cancelled operations should be explained clearly and promptly to patients and families, and an expected new date given.
  • All patients should have a named health and social care professional as their point of contact so that they know who to go to for clarification or if concerns need to be raised.

The report was not all bad news; many people told us they received top-notch support, and there are some great examples of staff members and organisations taking strong steps to improve the patient experience. One is the Gold Standard Project at Whipps Cross Hospital in London, which is using feedback to improve patient care and communication between patients, families and staff.

We know the NHS and social services are under severe financial pressure, but staff should still prioritise compassionate, humane care, and treat patients as they would like to be treated themselves. And this is not a one-way street; those receiving care should also communicate clearly and regularly with professionals, treat them with courtesy and ask questions where necessary.

We will all be patients at some point. ‘Being human’ in caring for others is a goal we can, and must, achieve together.

About the author

Katherine MurphyKatherine Murphy is chief executive of the Patients Association