07 Jan 2011 09:45

Nick Clegg has announced that he is to introduce real changes into England’s libel laws—a long overdue move in the effort to shuck vested interests out of their protective shells and make English society a more equal and open place (http://bit.ly/eeOp5n). Currently, it takes a very brave person to speak up and risk a libel suit—and there are very few of us who can afford that. Yet it’s very important for the public to be able to speak up and say when a particular individual is not doing their job—especially when that job is in public services and paid for by the public.

It may be a good step towards making the English public, at least, far less timid about speaking up and telling it as they see it. I don’t care for unnecessary confrontation, but coming back to Britain after so many years in the USA showed me that people here are afraid to speak up. Criticism is indirect, ‘diplomatic’, or avoidant and all too often ineffectual. Little changes until people are pushed to unnecessary extremes to be heard and then we get shouting in the clinics—whereupon the complainant is ejected and everything continues badly as before. It is simply oppressive. Whistleblowing is punished, even when it is killing people—we only need to look back at the Bristol Inquiry and the current Stafford Inquiry to see that.

A while ago, I mooted the idea of a well-structured, scientifically based review-website to assess the quality of clinicians’ performance in helping people get well during treatment for an illness. It would show how health-effective a clinician’s practice is and it is more accurate and proactive than simply making a body-count of the dead as we do now. This idea effectively was shut down because I was told “we can’t say that Dr. X has been ineffectual publicly, because it will cause a libel suit”—and this is when Dr. X has been paid by public taxes to provide a service to the public in order to help the public get well from illness. This reality is one of the reasons why clinicians have been untouchable and have had no greater motivation than their own integrity to do a good job. When a clinician has integrity—and we know many who have—she does her best to make sure she is doing a good job; but I also know many clinicians who really can’t be bothered, who see themselves as the victims of a difficult system and weep all the way to the bank as they cash their annual salary of £150,000. Furthermore, what is a good job to a surgeon can be quite different from what it is to a patient: “the surgery was successful but the patient died”. The patient might have reviewed the adequacy of the surgeon’s performance as other than ‘successful’ if he’d lived.

If the NHS or any medical system is to become patient-centred, it has to mean making medical services about helping people become well long-term. How each clinician does that needs to be reviewed publicly. But it’s not a case of using the ludicrous 5-star system of recent times or the current fad for measuring ‘patient satisfaction’; it needs to be a thorough system that looks at all the variables that go into helping people get well. I’ve researched this for a number of years and it’s a complex, scientific issue. It can be done and the public has an essential role in such a review. We need to be able to say it publicly when things are less than adequate, without fear of a lawsuit for libel. Nick Clegg’s initiative is a very, very welcome step in the right direction. Let’s hope he succeeds.