From April 2016, a new and independent body, the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch (HSIB) will begin to operate, its purpose being to investigate failings in NHS hospitals’ patient care. Included in its remit will be power to give legal protection to and “safe spaces” for NHS staff wishing to raise concerns about patient safety without fear of suspension or dismissal. Reports following such investigations will be prepared and from April 2018, expert medical examiners will independently review and confirm the cause of all hospital deaths.

A welcome development? Certainly. The current system of hospital investigation has remained essentially the same for the past fifty years; shaped within a culture of deference to doctors, hospitals and their management boards. Times have changed and we are no longer so afraid of challenging these institutions. Access to information and support on the internet has meant that patients are better informed about medical issues and have easier pathways to a complaints process. However, despite this access and promises of “lessons being learned”, “root cause analysis” reports and an apparent “spirit of openness” the NHS has still not moved sufficiently towards the openness, cooperation and provision of answers that patients deserve. Root cause analysis reports are prepared by in house doctors and they invariably excuse or explain the incident complained of in a way that does not fit with our clients’ recollection of events, our own analysis or indeed independent medical expert opinion obtained by us. Medical records are sometimes “incomplete” (to put it diplomatically) and staff remain afraid to speak up when they see negligence and / or unsafe practices in their hospitals.

So the HSIB should be welcomed, (with a note of caution that the investigation reports will not necessarily be available to a patient without a court order) and we may finally start to see cooperation and openness that has been denied to patients for too long. Our clients may no longer feel their concerns over safety were “dismissed”, so much so that they started to question themselves. And our cases here may even be resolved more quickly, avoiding lengthy and frustrating court processes that only add to our clients’ anxiety and stress.

Let’s see what happens…