Great Ormond Street’s been put on a pedestal it doesn’t deserve
Published in The Mail on Sunday (June 19th, 2011)
The lonely death of Baby P was one of those moments that jolted the entire nation. That picture of the blond-haired infant in his blue jumper looking pleadingly into the camera became an iconic image, symbolising the horrors visited on those who fall through the fissures in society.
The death led to a series of inquiries, with social workers sacked and a doctor struck off. Four years on, the shockwaves still reverberate. Now they have rocked one of Britain’s most revered institutions.
Great Ormond Street Hospital stands accused of a seedy cover-up over its role in the scandal, embroiled in allegations so serious a Government Minister is demanding the head of the chief executive.
The charges against the hospital include ignoring doctors who sought to highlight failings, suspending a whistleblower and – though the hospital denies this – withholding vital information from official inquiries.
The saga demonstrates the danger of letting a hospital exert such a grip on public affection. Great Ormond Street has been turned into a powerful money-raising brand with a reputation to defend.
It is bad enough that the NHS has such sacred status that serious debate is stymied. Now we see what happens when a hospital, however vital its work, becomes hallowed. For behind the cute logo lies an institution that suffers the flaws bedevilling other public services, as I know from grim personal experience. But it has become so untouchable that few dare speak out.
From its inception more than 150 years ago, London’s hospital for sick children has had unique status, championed by Royals and celebrities. Its first patron was Queen Victoria. Early supporters included Charles Dickens and the Edwardian author J. M. Barrie.
But it was the association with Princess Diana that elevated it to the heavens. The Wishing Well appeal for a new wing raised £84million, followed by endless TV documentaries designed to tug at viewers’ heart-strings. In the past five years, £268million has been raised.
Behind the scenes, there has been alarm at its growth and power, but many in the medical world feared taking on such a beloved behemoth. So it has stifled the development of rival and localised centres of excellence; the threatened closure of the children’s heart surgery unit at Royal Brompton Hospital is merely the latest worrying consequence.
Growing worries exploded into public view with the Baby P case. Four paediatricians warned that doctors at St Ann’s clinic in Haringey, run by Great Ormond Street, were seriously overworked and that a child would die without action.
Tragically, this is exactly what happened. Peter Connelly – Baby P – was sent home despite crying in pain from a broken back. He died two days later, aged just 17 months, having suffered more than 50 agonising injuries in eight months of abuse.
Kim Holt, one of the consultants who raised the alarm, was blocked from returning to her £100,000-a-year post in childcare. Last week, after four long years, she finally won her battle for reinstatement when the hospital issued a public apology.
Whistleblowers are so vital to the NHS that there is special legislation to protect them. But a survey found nearly half of doctors say they are too frightened of repercussions to report worries about patient safety.
It gets worse at Great Ormond Street. For an allegation has emerged that, having made critical mistakes and turned on a member of staff who raised concerns, they then withheld information from two official inquiries. A BBC investigation claims that the hospital commissioned an external report, then cut out critical sections before passing it on.
Edited out were revelations that the head of St Ann’s had identified ‘a clinically risky situation’ and that there were grave concerns over child protection arrangements, including the use of inexperienced doctors – such as the locum who examined Baby P.
Defending its decision to pass on an edited version of the report, the hospital has said it included all ‘relevant information’. The chairwoman of the Great Ormond Street NHS Trust has said they are confident ‘the trust has never sought to mislead any inquiry into the death of a child’. But it will be a concern to those who gave hard-earned money to its appeals.
Now Lynne Featherstone, a Home Office Minister and the local MP in the Baby P case, has demanded the sacking of Jane Collins, chief executive of Great Ormond Street.
Dr Collins, by training a paediatrician, is a good doctor, whatever her managerial skills. My daughter, who is blind, epileptic and profoundly disabled, was under her wing for several years. We found her efficient, kind and caring. It is a view endorsed by the hospital itself.
But the problems at Great Ormond Street go deeper than just one person. Our first appointment there set the tone, when an arrogant receptionist looked up at a young couple who had travelled down from the North East with their baby and said casually: ‘Oh, didn’t anyone tell you – your appointment’s been cancelled.’ They were distraught.
We endured doctors who never read the case notes, returned phone calls or responded to emails. One consultant cared only about a special diet at the centre of her research. Another lost key files when our daughter’s life was at risk.
Not all the staff were bad. Some were outstanding, such as the palliative care team who kept us going through some of the toughest times. But we transferred our daughter’s neurology care to Evelina Children’s Hospital in London after a doctor lied over critical blood tests he had mislaid. We were scared to leave such a renowned centre of excellence, but now wish we had done so sooner. The care is vastly superior – possibly because staff cannot hide behind an exalted reputation.
Our story is not unique. When I made glancing criticism of Great Ormond Street in another article, I received a torrent of emails in support. ‘The first piece of honesty we’ve read,’ wrote one mother, detailing her complaints.
When people say they plan to donate, I tell them to choose a better cause such as hospices for young adults. It does do wonderful work, of course, and the skill and dedication of most staff deserve the highest possible praise. But we must learn a valuable lesson.
No public service – not even Great Ormond Street Hospital – should ever again be put on such a pedestal that it believes the preservation of its reputation to be more important than the preservation of the truth.