Power to the patients

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Patient power is definitely in vogue.

Tuesday saw the launch of the new hospital inspection regime. The revamped process involves patients sitting on the teams that go into hospital and regular public meetings at each site that is visited.

Meanwhile, the results of the new PLACE programme - inspections which look at the non-clinical aspects such as cleanliness, building design and food - were also released this week.

As part of the changes made to the previous regime, lay representation on the inspection panels has been beefed up. Half of the members now have to be patients.

But while most people would not object to getting patients involved in this way, will it really make a difference?

Betty Smithson, an 82-year-old from Leeds, who took part in several PLACE inspections, thinks so.

The former nurse says: "The staff have been wonderful at listening to us and I think we pick up things that would otherwise go unnoticed.

"Not because the staff don't want to fix them, but I know from my time working on the wards that you don't always see the little things when you are there day-in, day-out."

But others are less sure. The first public meeting as part of the Care Quality Commission's new hospital inspection regime was held in Croydon this week.

The event on Tuesday evening attracted more than 60 local residents.

Many said they were pleased to have been given the opportunity to have their say, but 78-year-old Ernest Sweeney has his doubts.

He was not convinced that the inspectors were able to relate entirely to what local residents were saying - and, as a result, questioned what effect the exercise would have.

"I'm not sure how much the local inspectors were aware of the local situation. Of course, they were there to learn more, but they did not seem to be aware of how the hospitals works or the history, that made it difficult to get our concerns across."

Mr Sweeney also makes another interesting point. He used to be a member of the local patient and public involvement forum, which existed across the country between 2003 and 2008 to give patients a say on their local health services.

"This is not new," he says. "Patients have always been able to have their say. What really matters is whether enough people step forward to speak out and whether people listen to them."

It is a point also made by the Tory MP Stephen Dorrell, a man who knows a thing or two about how the health service works through his time as health secretary in John Major's Government and now in his role as chairman of the Health Select Committee.

He says what matters most now is making sure "the right channels" are in place to allow patients to have "real influence".

And this is perhaps the crux of the issue for the NHS: it is not always good at listening.

As the various inquiries into the Stafford Hospital scandal showed, it wasn't that patients were not raising the alarm. They were. It just that their complaints were just not acted up on.