'Elite' hospital heroes get set to mentor the bad

The Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham will be one of those helping under performing trusts. Photo: ITV News

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt can sometimes be a little laid back. But he was unusually forceful this morning when he told me that sorting out failing hospitals is absolutely his top priority.

Eleven hospitals are on his list. They were identified by Sir Bruce Keogh, the most senior doctor in the NHS, because they had the worst mortality statistics. Now Hunt plans to send in the shock troops. Or rather he has persuaded chief executives from what he calls "elite" hospitals to go into failing hospitals to advise, persuade or cajole them into improving beyond recognition.

So, for example, Dame Julie Moore, Chief Executive of Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, will be parachuted into two hospitals - George Eliot in Nuneaton and Burton. Julie, as everybody calls her, is a down to Earth ex-nurse. But she is also made sure that the new QE hospital is, in Hunt's words "one of the most outstanding hospitals in the World".

She gives one example of how she can help. QE hospital has a great computer system. It tracks what's happening to every patient on every ward. If, for example, a nurse misses taking a patient's temperature etc, it shows up on the computer. Patients can complain about the food on the screen by their bed. And if two of them complain the computer sends a message to the matron's mobile phone. If the issue isn't sorted out in a few hours, it sends a message to Julie's phone.

The Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham will be one of those helping under performing trusts. Credit: ITV News

Devising that system took a long time. Now QE can export it to the hospitals they are helping. Hunt explained to me that if this kind of help worked, the helping hand hospital would be paid from a special fund - but only if they succeed in raising standards significantly.

Patients, he told me, should see the difference in a matter of months, though in some hospitals the problems are so deep-seated that it could take up to 5 years to transform them into good places to be treated.

But, you might ask, if a hospital is failing, shouldn't heads roll? Well, in many failing hospitals, chief executives and medical directors have already gone. And more could go - improvements will not, the Department of Health says, be held back by "weak leadership."

Perhaps the most shocking of the 11 hospitals is that six of them have been given Foundation status - which means they are supposed to be among the best and have been given a great deal of independence. While they are in special measures that independence will be suspended. But I wonder if I am the only one who wonders why the regulators who failed to spot these hospitals slipping into crisis have now been given the job of overseeing their recovery?

Hunt's reply to this is that the new system of hospital inspection currently being introduced by Sir Mike Richards, will be vigorous and independent. Those trying to improve failing hospitals will not be marking their own homework.