Reporting the local NHS: credit where it’s due

The National Union of Journalists has started a campaign to support reporting of health and the NHS, especially in the local and regional media. It’s a good choice – and there’s a good article about it in the NUJ magazine The Journalist (starts on page 14), with contributions from Shaun Lintern, who covered Mid Staffordshire relentlessly for the Express and Star, and now works for Health Service Journal.

As one of my colleagues at EHI says, the NHS isn’t national. She also says it doesn’t deal with health and doesn’t provide much of a service, but leaving that aside, the point is that the health service is essentially local: you are normally cared for by your local GP, then your local NHS trust (or board, in Scotland and Wales). Trusts and boards vary greatly in quality – some are brilliant, a few are awful, many are somewhere in between.

However, the national media rarely bothers about individual trusts and boards except when they are in crisis – and even then nationals have a habit of focusing on those in London, otherwise known as ‘the city where many journalists live’. So, in the main, it’s up to journalists working in the local media to cover the most important parts of the NHS. (I try to play my part too.)

And some of these journalists do a good, thoughtful job, which you can find through my @ImpatientNHS Twitter feed which includes local media via Google News. For example, the Northern Echo this week analysed the job and bed statistics for its local NHS acute trusts, and concluded both were increasing, contrary to complaints from the Royal College of Nursing. Last week, Dan Wainwright, at Shaun’s old paper the Express and Star, wrote about his disappointing experience of NHS 111 – a service which is delivered by a range of organisations across England, with the varying quality that implies.

Reporting tends to be particularly strong in Scotland, perhaps because it has its own national media on top of the UK’s, perhaps through Scottish pride in public services and perhaps because its big publications cover large patches of Scotland, both their home cities and the surrounding rural areas. This week saw the Herald in Glasgow covering an inspection of NHS Lanarkshire’s hospitals after higher than expected mortality rates – and while NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde is the Herald’s home health board, it presumably has plenty of readers in Lanarkshire to the south as well. (To be fair to the national media, this was also covered by the Times, although by its Scottish staff.)

How can local NHS reporting be improved? It needs more recognition; so the NUJ’s recognition that there is an issue is definitely a start.