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Low morale is understandable... but PCT staff can’t just give up

Post-white paper blues are already affecting the way PCTs are responding to journalists, and could signal wider problems, writes PulseToday editor Steve Nowottny

Post-white paper blues are already affecting the way PCTs are responding to journalists, and could signal wider problems, writes PulseToday editor Steve Nowottny

On Monday, Pulse received a complaint about an inaccuracy in one of our stories – our investigation showing that patients are being denied IVF treatment by cash-strapped PCTs.

Now, Pulse receives some complaints from time to time. Unfortunately, while we try our very best to be accurate, making the occasional mistake is an occupational hazard, and when we do so we are of course happy to correct it.

But this was a particularly curious complaint, because the ‘inaccurate' information we had published about NHS West Kent – namely that they had not funded any IVF in the past two years – had been provided by, well, NHS West Kent.

It transpired, on further investigation by the PCT press office who made the complaint, that the figures given in response to our Freedom of Information request were – and there's no easy way of putting this – wrong. NHS West Kent had actually funded two cycles of IVF per couple and spent £1.4 million in doing so in 2009-10.

A glaring error, then, but unfortunately not an uncommon one.

By pure coincidence a few minutes after receiving the complaint from NHS West Kent, we received an email from NHS Central Lancashire about an entirely separate story, looking at trusts cutting Choose and Book incentives. Once again, they'd got it wrong, telling us incorrectly that they had cut local funding for Choose and Book.

At least NHS West Kent and NHS Central Lancashire bothered to respond. We've lost count of the number of trusts who fail in their duty to respond within 20 working days – across NHS bodies as a whole, a timely response rate of perhaps 70-80% is good going.

And this week one trust came up with a particularly novel excuse. During a conversation with NHS Salford, in a still fruitless search for an answer as to why they had provided an incomplete response to our questions on IVF, my colleague received the following frank – and frankly extraordinary – explanation.

'What you are seeing here is a reaction to the White Paper,' we were told, implying that the rather lackadaisical attitude we have been experiencing from PCTs recently may be related to their imminent demise.

Just today, one of our reporters was accidentally copied in to a response to his request for information from NHS North Somerset which simply read 'in his dreams'. The press officer in question swiftly rang up to apologise - but they have missed the deadline and we are still awaiting their response.

Beyond ensuring that our stories offer accurate coverage, why exactly does this matter?

Well, taxpayer-funded bodies have a duty – a legal duty – to provide this kind of information. Particularly when NHS press offices are so keen to deflect even simple media queries by demanding they be submitted as FOI requests, it's important they get it right.

But more than that, it's important to remember these aren't just abstract figures. Our IVF story was picked up by the Daily Telegraph, which as a result informed patients across West Kent last weekend that their PCT had decided not to fund IVF treatment. For some, that will really matter.

And most worrying of all, of course, is the notion that demotivated PCT staff – for now still controlling billions of pounds of NHS budgets and making crucial healthcare funding decisions on a daily basis – suddenly think they have licence to take it easy.

If this is what's happening with basic requests for information from journalists, what else is going on out there?

Steve Nowottny is the editor of PulseToday

Click here for more from Behind the Curtain Steve Nowottny

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