Patients are the missing line of defence – Luke O’Shea

With the two-day Patient Safety Congress underway in Birmingham, NHS England’s Head of Integrated Personal Commissioning and Person Centred Care explains why listening to patients is so vital:

World leaders in health care are today using the platform of the Patient Safety Congress to discuss how to make NHS services the safest in the world.

As a dad to three precious children and as a user of the NHS, I find this hugely re-assuring.

Yet too often in these debates we miss what is right under our nose, the first line of defence against safety failures, and our biggest asset in preventing problems arising in the first place – the patients themselves.

For this reason it is fitting that I will be sharing the platform today with Chezelle Craig, who has a difficult but important message for all of us in the NHS. At the heart of it is the recognition that sometimes we professionals need stop talking and start listening.

Chezelle is a mum whose baby son died of Neonatal Herpes Simplex.  Herpes Simplex is a common virus in adults: many of us have had a cold sore, one strain of the virus. However, contracting the virus in the first weeks of life is extremely dangerous and can be fatal. It can be passed on babies by anyone suffering from an active bout of the virus, such as a cold sore, particularly by kissing the baby.

Chezelle knew there was something wrong. Her baby was not crying. Tragically, as a young mum, professionals did not take her views seriously. She told me how they didn’t listen to her and how poor many professional’s knowledge is about neonatal herpes.

So now Chezelle wants to change things. She wants expectant mums to be aware of the dangers of herpes, just as they might know about the dangers of chicken pox for pregnant mums and babies.   She hopes that by building patients and professionals’ knowledge about herpes, that others might avoid the terrible loss of a child – and build a legacy for her son Tayden.

This is one powerful example at the heart of an agenda that may be the most important thing we discuss at the Patient Safety Congress – the changing role of patients in response to the safety challenge.

Informed and empowered patients can become the NHS’ greatest assets and our first line of defence against individual and institutional failures.

But we need to start listening. We need to see patients as an asset and a resource with the potential to prevent problems arising and transform the NHS into a safer and greater institution.

The safe and appropriate healthcare we want demands a new type of genuine patient partnership. But let’s start today with a bit of humility, by listening to Chezelle and by learning a bit about neonatal herpes simplex. It’s the least we can do and it just might save a baby’s life.

Useful resources and further information:

Luke O'Shea

Luke O’Shea is Head of Integrated Personal Commissioning and Person Centred Care for NHS England.

He has previously worked in national policy and strategy roles at the Department of Health and as a commissioner in a local authority and the NHS.

Prior to that he worked in a range of government departments including leading work on early year services at the Prime Minister’s strategy unit, as a private secretary to a children’s minister and leading cross government working on ageing.

He describes as his proudest achievements his “modest role at the inception of Family Nurse Partnership in the UK and of my work on ageing”.