We must never forget the human touch. It's what today's NHS is lacking

This government confused customising services with humanising them, writes IPPR's David Robinson.

Britain’s most respected institution was the star of the show at the Olympic opening ceremony a year ago but our beloved NHS has taken a brutal kicking ever since. First the Mid Staffs report revealed "a lack of care, compassion and humanity", then similar revelations about several other hospital trusts, an enduring crisis in A&E departments across the country and now, it seems, the 111 call service is falling apart at the seams. 

Of course even the best managers will struggle when demand is rising and funding is falling, and some parts of the NHS are seriously lacking in the best managers department. But the underlying story of the last 12 months has not just been about money or management. It has also been about culture and about reaping the consequences of a prolonged and systematic shift in custom and practice. A fundamental change that has not been confined to the NHS but is endemic across our public services.

Commenting on the Mid Staffs report and shortly after starting work as the new NHS national medical director Professor Bruce Keogh promised earlier this year that hospitals would be fined if they failed to provide the best care. Is this really the answer? Care driven by fear of punishment? 

The prospect is discomforting but it isn’t new and it isn’t unique to the health service. Talk to social workers, teachers, probation officers and care workers and you will find that regulations and systems, impersonal transactions and a fear of risk and reprisal shape the culture in which they all work. Public services in recent years have been reduced to a set of transactions when the real need is for a more personal relationship, for common sense and for human kindness.

Callers to 111, patients in A&E, and particularly families using Mid Staffs haven't, for the most part, been complaining about the medical science. Rather, they say, it’s the human touch that’s gone missing. The time to talk to an anxious relative in A&E, the opportunity to appreciate that a patient needs a drink as much as a pill, and the common sense to understand that a monitoring phone call at 5am in the morning may not be the most useful way of helping a stressed parent. In short, the capability and, critically, the management support to see the person not the operational target. 

This government and the last one confused customising services with humanising them – both are worthwhile goals, but they are quite different. 111 call centres or big polyclinics may offer a service that will meet individual needs more quickly, efficiently and flexibly than the individual GP working on their own, but the service will be less personal. The polyclinic suits the busy commuter seeking holiday jabs (customised); the small-practice GP may be preferred by the parent of a chronically sick child visiting the surgery every week (humanised). A huge body of evidence now supports the proposition that consistent, high-quality relationships change lives and that better results are achieved where, in design and delivery, primacy is given to the quality and consistency of the individual interaction – that is, where the service is humanised.

Such “deep value” relationships should be the organising principle at the heart of our public services, not because they are a “nice to have” on the margins of the core service, but because they have a material impact on the outcomes and on the long term costs. 

As conference season approaches politicians and commentators will be preparing their prescriptions for the NHS. They must not – in the words of TS Eliot – "dream of a system so perfect that no one will have to be good". We've been there and it isn’t working. Systems, upheld by inspection and punishment are, at best, not enough. We need the maturity and the good sense to talk about love, what Barbara Fredrickson has called "that micro-moment of warmth and connection that you share with another human being", to understand the place of trust and kindness in the public realm and, above all, to consistently and deliberately design it into service reform, not design it out.

A patient is wheeled into a lift in Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images

David Robinson is co-founder and now senior adviser to Community Links

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear