Loopholes, NHS waiting times and BBC Scotland

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By G.A.Ponsonby

On Monday evening on Reporting Scotland BBC Scotland’s Health Correspondent Eleanor Bradford claimed she had found “further evidence” of “loopholes” in the Scottish government’s waiting times policy.

Anyone who has followed Ms Bradford on her quest to ‘expose’ a waiting time scandal that, on the evidence presented thus far doesn’t really exist, will by now be wondering what is going on.

By G.A.Ponsonby

On Monday evening on Reporting Scotland BBC Scotland’s Health Correspondent Eleanor Bradford claimed she had found “further evidence” of “loopholes” in the Scottish government’s waiting times policy.

Anyone who has followed Ms Bradford on her quest to ‘expose’ a waiting time scandal that, on the evidence presented thus far doesn’t really exist, will by now be wondering what is going on.

The well documented waiting list manipulation at NHS Lothian was indeed a scandal.

It resulted in an investigation being ordered by then Health secretary Nicola Sturgeon which found serious problems with the management structure.  Her replacement Alex Neil ordered the management to supply officials with full minutes, agendas and background briefing papers from private board meetings dating back to 2010.

A national investigation uncovered one other episode at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee which resulted in two managers being suspended for allegedly “massaging” figures.  Audit Scotland found discrepancies after spending weeks examining the Hospital’s records.

The second episode was leapt on, not surprisingly by Scottish Labour, who began to imply that the manipulation was not restricted to NHS Lothian and Dundee.  Scottish Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie said: “This is the beginning of a national scandal of health boards fiddling waiting times.”

However, despite repeated claims, no such evidence of a national scandal emerged.

Faced with a paucity of evidence as we entered 2013, Eleanor Bradford decided to investigate, we can surmise in the expectation of uncovering this hidden evidence of a national scandal.

The first fruits of Ms Bradford’s labour involved a flooded scanner at Woolmanhill Hospital in Grampian.

In an article published on January 12th, Ms Bradford claimed that “As many as 3,500 people at risk of bone fractures are waiting eight months for a scan to detect osteoporosis at a clinic in Aberdeen.”

However, Newsnet Scotland has discovered the statement was inaccurate – the 3,500 figure was the number of patients treated by the centre in a year and not the number who were affected by the 32 week delay.

Indeed, the situation was hardly a secret having been published on NHS Grampian’s own website since October 3rd 2011 – fully 15 months before the BBC Scotland reporter revealed the ‘scandal’.

NHS Grampian put out a detailed statement following the BBC report which refuted all of the allegations made by Eleanor Bradford in no uncertain terms.

It has subsequently emerged that, far from 3,500 people having been affected by the scanner problem at NHS Grampian as claimed by BBC Scotland, the real figure was closer to one hundred.  An audit report, given a passing mention in the BBC article, found that NHS Grampian was fully compliant with the waiting list guidelines and that there were only a few technical problems which have since been addressed to the extent which they can be under the constraints of their IT systems.

That this story was published at all begs the question as to why?  A clue can perhaps be found when one examines the change in strategy by Scottish Labour.

The last two First Minister’s Questions has witnessed Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont targeting Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.  Ms Sturgeon, recognised as the best Health Minister Holyrood has ever seen, has faced claims that she has in fact presided over several hidden scandals – the most high profile being waiting times.

That BBC Scotland has adopted a similar approach to its coverage of the Scottish NHS is no mere coincidence.

Eleanor Bradford has now turned away from the official waiting list targets and onto those areas not covered by the Scottish government guarantees.  Not surprisingly, in those areas with no waiting time guarantees Ms Bradford has found people who have waited lengthy periods.

Last week we heard that women with breast cancer had waiting time guarantees in the period prior to surgery.  Thereafter the decision on radiotherapy was taken by GPs, with no guarantee on waiting times.  There is in fact no definitive medical evidence to suggest that a delay in radiotherapy treatment after surgery hampers recovery.

A plea, made by Ms Bradford for people to contact her directly has led to anecdotal evidence being used in order to suggest ‘loopholes’ in the Scottish government’s waiting times policy.

Thus, viewers are now being bombarded by claims of hitherto unknown ‘loopholes’ through which unfortunate patients are falling.  Some of the unsubstantiated anecdotal ‘evidence’ published by BBC Scotland online beggars belief as can be seen below:

One woman told us the anxiety of waiting so long caused her to have “a bit of a breakdown”.

A man told BBC Scotland he was told he would have to wait six and a half months for a knee replacement in Aberdeen unless he was prepared to travel to Glasgow.

One man who contacted the BBC said: “I am horrified that these people, both politicians and NHS managers are prepared to play these tricks with waiting times when peoples lives are quite literally on the line.”

But this sort of journalistic claptrap is effective.  The ‘loophole’ soundbite has been repeated by several newsreaders across BBC Scotland’s broadcast spectrum – its use has also been challenged by the Scottish government.

The result of course will be to plant the suggestion in the minds of the public that the Scottish government’s waiting times targets are a fraud.  This will be used by Labour and other Unionist parties as ‘evidence’ that Nicola Sturgeon’s tenure as Health Minister was scandal ridden and now only being exposed by diligent investigative reporting.

The Scottish government has repeatedly explained that the areas, described by Bradford as a “loophole”, have never been part of the waiting time policy.  However this will have little effect – the subliminal message will be absorbed by the unfortunate Scottish public.

Loopholes exist everywhere, they are used by lawyers who exploit weak laws and accountants who exploit equally poorly drafted tax regulations.  To suggest that the Scottish government has somehow drafted policies designed to mislead and hoodwink patients is beneath contempt.

If BBC Scotland really wants to know what a loophole is, then perhaps some investigation into the half million pound payoff to an ex-charity boss, sanctioned by three Glasgow Labour councillors, might be a start.

Sadly, there appears little appetite to apply even a fraction of the scrutiny that has been applied to waiting times, to Glasgow Council which is currently beset with scandals and U turns.

Related article: http://www.newsnetscotland.com/index.php/scottish-news/5962-what-was-behind-bbc-scotlands-attack-on-the-scottish-nhs