This story appeared in the Daily Mail today under the headline “Too polite to make a fuss: Elderly NHS patients suffer in silence say health watchdog”. It was based on a short article from Dame Julie Mellor, the Health Service Ombudsman. The article itself, which was quoted in full within the body of the story was pretty sensible and constructive. Titled “Please don't suffer in silence” it is a plea for people with issues about their treatment to complain rather than put up with things. It is carefully written in reasonable language. Dame Julie speculates, without much hard evidence I must say, that older people may be more reticent about complaining than the young. She suggests we need to simplify complaints processes and make sure that complainants are treated fairly and with compassion. This comes from the only person in the UK who sees all the instances when complaints are not resolved to the patients’ satisfaction but does not see any satisfied customers to provide balance to her view.
All this is fair enough – a few reasoned, sensible and constructive paragraphs which highlight a potential issue for elderly patients.
The trouble starts with the text Daily Mail hack Daniel Martin has chosen to hang around it. A series of misrepresentations, exaggerations and misquotes. These precede the actual article so are read first and they do not reflect accurately what she said. Examples include:
- “Tens of thousands of elderly patients are enduring appalling NHS care because they are too frightened to complain”
- “She said she had investigated cases of pensioners being effectively starved on wards and treated without a shred of dignity”
- “The damning comments from such a high-profile figure are significant because they indicate that, despite all the reforms announced after the Mid Staffordshire scandal, little has changed.”
Then there are a series of anecdotes of bad care which we assume are cases Dame Julie has investigated but which are not included in her article. They are snippets of information without detail or reference. They are unbalanced and probably break rules of confidentiality.
All of this is spiced up with archive pictures of ill looking elderly people just in case we have forgotten how unpleasant it is to be old and infirm.
To make things worse the story has been picked up in the Guardian, the Telegraph and MSN. The venomous quotes from the Daily Mail have been reproduced with even bothering to include Dame Julie’s original piece. All of these articles have been tweeted hundreds of time. The damage to the reputation of the NHS is real and significant.
One can only speculate why Dame Julie chose to write this piece for the Mail. She must have known what damage they could do with it and how they would twist and exaggerate her views. A clue may be towards the end of her piece where she calls for a new unified approach and a single Public Ombudsman Service for the England and the United Kingdom. Aha! – She has a political agenda.
High profile figures will often have a political axe to grind and may be drawn to the press to further their own political ambitions. They should be careful though. Large sections of the press are sensationalist, partisan and unprincipled. By writing this article for the Daily Mail, Dame Julie may have progressed her objective of changing the way the Ombudsman service is set up but she has inadvertently damaged the bigger service she purports to want to improve and will have caused real harm to some real patients.