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Written on 14th July 2022 by Susan Brown

Dr Henrietta Hughes OBE has been appointed as Patient Safety Commissioner for England.  

The role of Patient Safety Commissioner was created in response to recommendations by the IMMDS Review, First Do No Harm, chaired by Baroness Cumberlege, which called for a new Patient Safety Commissioner to champion the patient’s voice to help reduce avoidable harm by improving patient safety.

Why do we need a Patient Safety Commissioner? 

The Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Review (IMMDS Review) was commissioned in 2018 by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care at that time, the Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP. The purpose of the review was to examine how the healthcare system had responded to patients’ concerns and complaints about their medical treatment with sodium valproate, the Primodos hormone pregnancy test and surgical mesh. Jeremy Hunt believed that the healthcare system’s response to patients’ concerns about the effects of these treatments was not good enough. Baroness Cumberlege chaired the review, which reported its findings in July 2020 in its report, First Do No Harm.

A key finding from the review was that women who raised justifiable concerns about these treatments did not feel that they were listened to, and their concerns were not acknowledged by individual doctors or by the healthcare system as a whole. This failure by the healthcare system to acknowledge and respond to patients’ concerns resulted in shocking levels of devastating harm.  The report highlighted that the healthcare system needs to protect and listen to patients better. To help it do so, the review recommended that a new role of Patient Safety Commissioner should be created.

The government accepted this recommendation. In July 2021, following a public consultation, the government confirmed that the first Patient Safety Commissioner would be appointed in 2022.

What will the Patient Safety Commissioner do?

The Patient Safety Commissioner’s role will be to champion the patient’s voice in patient safety. The government has said that the Patient Safety Commissioner:

  • will be an independent point of contact for patients, giving a voice to their concerns to make sure they are heard;
  • will promote the safety of patients and the views of patients and other members of the public in relation to the safety of medicines and medical devices;
  • will help improve how the healthcare system listens to patients;
  • help the NHS and the government understand better what they can do to put patients first.

Who is the new Patient Safety Commissioner? 

Dr Henrietta Hughes OBE has been appointed as the first Patient Safety Commissioner for England. She is a practising GP (general practitioner).  Until 2021 she was National Guardian for the NHS, supporting NHS whistle-blowers and encouraging healthcare staff to speak up about their concerns.

Dr Hughes has indicated that whilst carrying out her new role championing patients as Patient Safety Commissioner, she will continue to work as a GP and as chair of Childhood First, a charity which promotes the care, treatment and rehabilitation of children and adolescents. She is quoted as saying:

“I am humbled and honoured to be appointed as the first Patient Safety Commissioner. This vital role, recommended in First Do No Harm, will make a difference to the safety of patients in relation to medicines and medical devices. Patients’ voices need to be at the heart of the design and delivery of healthcare. I would like to pay tribute to the incredible courage, persistence and compassion of all those who gave evidence to the report, their families and everyone who continues to campaign tirelessly for safer treatments.

I will work collaboratively with patients, the healthcare system and others so that all patients receive the information they need, all patients’ voices are heard and the system responds quickly to keep people safe.”

Dr Hughes’ appointment was checked and approved by the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee last week. The Committee’s chair, Jeremy Hunt, has been reported as saying;

 ‘With her background as National Guardian, Dr Henrietta Hughes is without doubt the right person to take on this important new role in patient safety and we wish her well in her appointment.’

However, he is also quoted as questioning whether Dr Hughes will have sufficient support to carry out her full vision for her Patient Safety Commissioner role, saying that; ‘the lack of definition of the role is a cause for concern’… ‘Dr Hughes is keen to act as the point of contact for broader patient safety concerns, beyond medication and medical device errors. It’s an approach that we on the Committee would welcome but for that to succeed the post needs adequate resources. Without backup and in the absence of clear metrics to define what success will look like there is a serious risk that the new Patient Safety Commissioner will fail. We owe it to patients to ensure that the PSC is launched with the best wind possible and we urge the Department of Health and Social Care to address how best to support the role as a matter of urgency.’

Boyes Turner’s clinical negligence team welcomes the appointment of the Patient Safety Commissioner in the hope that it will open the way for patients to obtain greater health service accountability and reduction in avoidable harm.

If you have suffered severe injury or disability as a result of medical negligence, contact us here to talk to one of our experienced solicitors, free and confidentially, to find out more about making a claim.