A review into Southern Health NHS Foundation has found that it failed to investigate more than 1,000 unexpected deaths http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/dec/09/southern-health-nhs-trust-failed-investigate-patient-deaths-inquiry and most other papers
The review, commissioned by NHS England and carried out by audit firm Mazars, was launched following the death of Connor Sparrowhawk at one of the trust’s treatment units in Oxford. He suffered an epileptic seizure and drowned in the bath – the coroner ruled the death had been preventable.
It is not for me to comment in this blog on the merits of the report but to look at the public relations techniques the Trust has used to respond – and to wonder whether their approach actually does their case more harm than good.
Southern Health’s statement – which has the smell of something drafted by the public relations department overseen by lawyers – is a classic response used by all bureaucracies facing similar challenges.
In some of my earlier blogs – under the bureaucratic evasion tag – I have traced the way these techniques are used. Here are two examples. https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/formulaic-excuses/
If you look at Southern Health’s statement (which is at the end of this blog) you will see that they follow the predictable path.
The strategy is always the same: stress the commitment to the highest standards; undermine the credibility of the report; say that improvements have already been implemented so the report is also out of date; and absolve individuals from responsibility by suggesting that the problem is to do with procedures.
Look at how the statement starts. In the first par, they say that “we want to avoid unnecessary anxiety amongst the people we support, their carers and families as their welfare is our priority.” It is a classic statement of the obvious that means nothing.
Then they move on to undermine the credibility of the report by saying that “there are serious concerns about the draft report’s interpretation of the evidence.”
This may or may not be true in this case – I would merely point out that this is also a hugely effective way of deflecting attention from the core comments of the report, and it would be more credible as a comment if it wasn’t used on almost every occasion.
The following paragraph is particularly interesting.
“We fully accept that our reporting processes following a patient death have not always been good enough. We have taken considerable measures to strengthen our investigation and learning from deaths including increased monitoring and scrutiny.”
Not another comment made by the Trust: “The outcome of the inquest evidenced that Connor’s death was preventable and, as a Trust, we have taken learning from this to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”
This combines two public relations strategies. It accepts criticism of “reporting processes” – in other words accepting that procedures are flawed, but that individuals should have no responsibility.
And it says that “considerable measures” have been taken to improve matters – again a tried and tested response to make the report seem out of date.
Note too that the response is full of the vacuous “we.” It is not entirely clear who the “we” are.
There is no mention of any individual names in the response even though, according to at least one newspaper report, there was specific criticism of “a failure of leadership” under chief executive Katrina Perry.
Leadership is carried out by individuals not institutions yet the Trust’s response avoids any comment on personal responsibility or accountability.
The vacuous “we” is also a slight advance on the passive voice which is often used by management in this situation. Using the passive makes it easier to avoid linking an executive to an action – though using “we” with an active word can only be the most marginal of improvements.
I have no idea whether Southern Health’s defence is reasonable or credible. But I am certain that by using hack PR techniques and legalistic evasion makes their case sound less credible and plausible.
The Southern Health statement
Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust said: “We would not usually comment on a leaked draft report. However, we want to avoid unnecessary anxiety amongst the people we support, their carers and families as their welfare is our priority.
“There are serious concerns about the draft report’s interpretation of the evidence. We fully accept that our reporting processes following a patient death have not always been good enough. We have taken considerable measures to strengthen our investigation and learning from deaths including increased monitoring and scrutiny.
“The review has not assessed the quality of care provided by the Trust. Instead it looked at the way in which the Trust recorded and investigated deaths of people with whom we had one or more contacts in the preceding 12 months. In almost all cases referred to in the report, the Trust was not the main provider of care.
“We would stress the draft report contains no evidence of more deaths than expected in the last four years of people with mental health needs or learning disabilities for the size and age of the population we serve.
“When the final report is published by NHS England we will review the recommendations and make any further changes necessary to ensure the processes through which we report, investigate and learn from deaths are of the highest possible standard.
“If you are directly affected by this issue, call this NHS number: 0300 003 0025.”