It is stressful enough when a loved one becomes so ill that they need to be admitted to hospital. It comes to something when instead of feeling relieved that they are now in the best place, we are afraid for their safety.

Death rates are up to 20% higher at weekends in some hospitals and Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, says he wants hospitals to stop relying on junior doctors over Saturdays and Sundays. His comments were made in an interview with the Sunday Times on 29 January 2012. He describes how the supervision of junior doctors on weekend shifts is a "big issue".  If he is worried, then we certainly should be.

Since the publication of the 10th annual hospital guide by Dr Foster last year, there has been a focus on trying to identify ways to improve poor patient care and death rates in hospitals over evenings and weekends.

The problem is that many hospitals leave junior doctors in charge. Almost a third of hospitals have no consultants in the hospitals at these times: the consultants are just on-call if needed.  This is a national problem. According to the Sunday Times, a recent survey of London Hospitals showed that an on-call medical consultant was expected to be at a hospital over the weekend for an average of only 8 hours and that 500 lives a year could be saved in London alone if death rates at weekends were the same as those on weekdays.

The Dr Foster report bases its scoring on a national average of 100 and the following hospital Trusts had a higher death rate: 

  • Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust
  • Buckinghamshire Hospitals NHS Trust
  • City Hospitals Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust
  • Derby Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
  • East Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust
  • George Eliot Hospital NHS Trust
  • Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust
  • Isle Of Wight NHS PCT
  • Mid Cheshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
  • Northampton General Hospital NHS Trust
  • Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS Trust
  • Royal Bolton Hospital NHS Foundation Trust
  • Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust
  • South London Healthcare NHS Trust
  • Southport and Ormskirk Hospital NHS Trust
  • The Dudley Group Of Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
  • The Royal Wolverhampton Hospitals NHS Trust
  • University Hospital Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust
  • Western Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust

Patients deserve the same standard of care round the clock. The independent medical experts we instruct when we investigate claims of medical negligence have long reported that the standard of care is worse at night and at weekends, with investigations and test results delayed until staff are back in on a Monday morning. In fact, checking what day of the week the poor care occurred is one of the first things they do when they review our clients' medical records.

I cannot see how this situation is going to improve with the Government's proposed plans to restructure the NHS: they should be focusing on getting the basics, like staffing levels, right instead. Two-thirds of NHS health workers in a recent YouGov poll have said they believe the planned reforms will make the NHS worse. It's time to put professional pride to one side Mr Lansley and think again.

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