Falling angels

When exactly did newspapers stop calling nurses angels?  For years journalists adored them all unquestioningly.

Was there a point when relatives began to notice that Granny was being strangely neglected? I guess there was, but I think the media were slow to spot the change, and now the hospital care of elderly patients has developed into a full-blown national scandal.

It was in my newspaper days around 20 years ago that I first heard a story about a hospital ward on the south coast. A young patient told me she had had been shocked by nurses gossiping instead of taking care of their mostly elderly charges.

I’m ashamed to say I did nothing about it. I could see no way of proving the story and as most people only had good things say about the hospital I guessed this was an isolated case, probably to do with under-staffing.

I forgot about it until a few years later, when I heard another story about the same hospital. An elderly and confused friend had gone in wearing her valuable diamond engagement ring and had come out after a couple of weeks without it.

Again there seemed to be no way of proving its veracity. By then I had left newspapers, and the information was too nebulous to convince an editor that it was worth investigating.

It’s only in the last two or three years that shocking examples of poor care have begun to emerge in the media. In 2008 the Daily Mail, for instance, carried a devastating account of disrespect and neglect by nursing staff in two hospitals and there have been similar reports in other titles.

But yesterday’s report by the Care Quality Commission was the most shocking of all. Spot checks of 100 hospitals revealed that only 45 were fully compliant with the required standards of dignity and nutrition of patients, and 20 fell below legal standards.

“Time and time again,” said the commission’s chairman, Dame Jo Williams, “we found cases where patients were treated in a way that stripped them of their dignity and respect. People were spoken over, and not spoken to; people were left without call bells, ignored for hours on end, or not given assistance to do the basics of life, to eat, drink or go to the toilet.”

Of course there are many examples of wonderful care, but it’s by no means universal. And it’s a grim thought that massive neglect may have gone on largely unreported for up to 20 years.

A handful of newspapers may be entitled to say “I told you so”, but the media in general have not been on the ball. “Staff shortages” may have been a factor here too, and in the drive to cut editorial costs it is worth remembering that investigative journalism may be expensive, but it is essential to life in democratic Britain.

GARETH WEEKES, Deep South Media Ltd.