Local NHS news comes from local journalists, so let’s not go paperless

Last week, Sam Shead of ZDNet got in touch with EHI Intelligence to ask if we expect to see a paperless NHS by 2018, as Jeremy Hunt pledged in a speech (analysed sharply by my EHI colleague Lyn Whitfield – she quotes one of Hunt’s aides on whether there will be funding to go paperless as saying: “Oh God. Do you mean central money? No, not a thing”). Mr Shead quoted me as follows:

“The English NHS will not be paperless by 2018,” senior analyst at EHI Intelligence, SA Mathieson, told ZDNet. “It is made up of several hundred organisations with greatly differing IT capabilities, as well as thousands of independent GPs.”

Leaving aside the devolution of health policy to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, even within England ‘NHS’ should be a plural. Some of its constituent organisations will be at least ‘paper-light’ by 2018 (in other words, with important systems fully digital and paper used only where it makes sense), while others will not – bear in mind that some NHS organisations are still using faxes. This government has encouraged individual NHS organisations to work independently and in some areas to increase competition with each other. The result is an increase, rather than decrease, in their differences.

What this means is that each NHS organisation deserves attention in its own right. While national specialists have a strong knowledge of many, it’s local journalists who watch their local NHS most closely and tend to produce much of the best coverage. A recent example was the resignation of Julia Bridgewater, who is about to leave her post as chief executive of the University Hospital of North Staffordshire NHS trust. This is from the Stoke Sentinel (no doubt referring to Newcastle-under-Lyme, not the north-eastern city):

Whenever I have walked with her along its corridors, she is constantly greeted by staff – and knows both their first names and something about their lives – be they senior consultants or humble domestics. Having always lived in Newcastle – now with husband Nick and three children, aged 10 to 24 – Mrs Bridgewater once told me she is driven by the need to make her hospital the best there is ‘because my loved ones will need treating there one day’.

Unusual for someone in such a lofty position, she has always refused to make her phone number ex-directory – even though that has allowed me to bother her at nights and weekends over some breaking UHNS story. She even saw the funny side when I tracked her down to her mother’s home where she was just sitting down to Sunday dinner.

You feel you know Mrs Bridgewater – it’s obvious the Sentinel journalist (sadly, not named on the website) does.

Local journalists do harder news as well, such as the Southern Daily Echo reporting last week that 10 NHS managers in Hampshire have received pay-offs in excess of £100,000, with £4.1m in redundancy payments resulting from Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust’s takeover of the Royal Hampshire County Hospital in Winchester last year. Or the approach of one of the 211 clinical commissioning groups, Redditch and Bromsgrove CCG, to using private companies (cautious, although not entirely opposed), revealed by the local branch of campaign group 38 Degrees and the Redditch Standard.

The automated NHS article feed I manage, @ImpatientNHS, tweets lots of local NHS news (with the prefix ‘News’) – which is how I saw the stories above. The headlines, written for local audiences, sometimes don’t do justice to the articles. I tweeted these three @samathieson as well, but if you want to understand the local NHS, it’s worth exploring what local journalists write about it.

The problem, of course, is that many local newspapers are in financial dire straits, threatening this kind of journalism. So if you find it worthwhile, then do your local NHS a favour and help pay the local journalists that watch it, whether through the paid-for apps that an increasing number of papers have launched (including my quality local, the Oxford Times, last week covering Oxford University Hospitals NHS trust ending emergency abdominal surgery at Banbury’s Horton Hospital – campaigners often worry that the trust wants to end many services at the Horton), by subscribing, or just by buying the paper regularly. Without support, many areas will be paperless long before the NHS.