As the junior doctors dispute rages, the eyes of the nation are once again turned on Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt. During his tumultuous tenure, Hunt has received wide criticism for his handling of contract disputes and alleged misleading of parliament and public alike. Regardless of political happenstance, one alarming fact has been swept under the rug, that the Health Secretary’s actions over the last year may have actually harmed patients.
Hunt’s trouble began with conflating manifesto promises of a ‘7 day NHS’ with an increased risk of hospital mortality at weekends due to ‘absence of senior doctors.’ This was known as the ‘Weekend Effect’. A year later this has curiously translated into a widely rejected and reportedly unsafe junior doctor contract.
Although ‘the weekend effect’ claim has been disproved, Hunt has continued his seemingly ‘good willed’ campaign in the absence of his catalysing motive, and threatens to impose unsafe contractual changes on frontline staff. Although Hunt was rightly criticised on his motivations and evidence, more sinister consequences seem to have been forgotten.
Particular concern must be paid to the short-sighted nature of Hunt’s political rhetoric. In announcing the ‘weekend effect’ Hunt managed to scare the unwell into avoiding hospitals at weekends, a phenomenon dubbed the ‘Hunt Effect’. Anecdotal reports by frontline staff report patients waiting until ‘after the weekend’ due to fear of dying in hospital. A study conducted during 2015 reviewed 33 patients who delayed presentation. The study linked 2 deaths to delayed presentation, as well as 32% of those studied suffering long term problems. This may just be the tip of the iceberg. I have seen patients as recently as last week who have avoided weekend visits.
‘’I believe that the health secretary should be held accountable for all the pain, suffering and injury caused by him to patients who did not go into hospital at weekends because they had been misled by him into believing they would not receive appropriate care‘ says lawyer and health activist, Peter Stefanovic.
The above cannot be acceptable. Although it cannot be conclusively proved that the above is directly attributable to the ‘Hunt effect’, statistics do not lie. These patients delayed seeking help and paid the price.
It is concerning that given the contradictory evidence and level of responsibility held by Hunts office, that such tragedy could result from poor foresight. Any indication that Hunt held some responsibility warrants investigation. It indeed seems that in this case the need for emotive soundbites came at the price of the very people Hunt swore to protect. It is beyond belief that a Health Secretary can get away with endangering patients.
‘One doctor told me he had seen an elderly patient who had fallen at home at home on Saturday morning and broken her hip. Instead of calling an ambulance right away, she waited at home in agony because she wrongly believed due to what she had read, that she had a greater chance of dying if she went to hospital on the weekend' Stefanovic continued,
‘If it were to be proven that patients actually died because they had delayed treatment due to the so called ‘Hunt effect’, I believe he should face a charge of gross negligence manslaughter. For the new PM to keep him on in this post defies all rational logic.’
It is a mark of our political climate that suspect activities by MPs, usually punishable by jail for the public, seemingly disappear. For the longest time our politicians escape the judicial hammer of the proletariat. If a doctor was to give erroneous advice knowingly leading to death this would be treated as murder or manslaughter.
When it comes to such actions, why should healthcare providers and their political management be held to different standards? How has Hunt avoided the guillotine? If patients have suffered or died, we must learn from the mistakes made. Policy and rhetoric have consequences. Politicians must be held accountable, and Hunt is not above reproach.