2020: Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on patient safety

  • 4th December 2020

Earlier this week, Patient Safety Learning’s Chief Executive, Helen Hughes, looked back over 2020, highlighting some of the big themes in patient safety we’ve seen this year and our own work in these areas.

This is the first of five mini blogs, where we give an overview of each of these themes in turn. Today, we look at the impact COVID-19 has had on patient safety.

As an additional option to the text below, you might like to watch the following short video from our Business and Policy Manager, Mark Hughes:

The pandemic’s effect on non COVID-19 care and treatment

While the healthcare system has rightly focused its attention on the deadly effects of COVID-19, we made the case this year that we need to pay attention to patient safety now more than ever; the pandemic has both magnified existing patient safety issues and created new challenges.

One major area of our focus has been the pandemic’s impact on non COVID-19 care and treatment, and the consequences for patient safety. To develop our understanding of this issue, in March we launched our #safetystories campaign, asking for patients with issues not related to COVID-19 – and yet facing new challenges because of it – to share their stories with us on the hub. Our aim was to find common themes and report to healthcare leaders with our insights, so we could help close emerging patient safety gaps as the health and care system prioritised COVID-19.

Later that month, we published our first blog on the potential impact of COVID-19 on patient safety, outlining where we thought the pandemic would have the biggest impact on patient safety.

The pandemic continues: identifying and addressing further risks to patient safety

As the year progressed and we identified different risks to patient safety that were exposed by the pandemic, we urged:

  • For patient safety considerations to be placed at the heart of the design and development of new ventilators for the NHS (March). At the time, the Government was focusing on the fast delivery of additional ventilators to meet increasing demand. This included development of ventilators, not just by established manufacturers, but also by companies who hadn’t previously produced them.
  • For the Government to tackle patient and staff safety concerns arising from the increased pressure on social care (April). Social care was already under immense pressure well before the spread of COVID-19 but, as the pandemic took hold, the sector had to respond to additional risks, such as short supplies of PPE and the increased number of rapid hospital discharges.
  • For trusts to address patient safety concerns impacting maternity services, particularly in relation to women choosing to have home births (April). This came after evidence suggested that more women were requesting to birth at home to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19 while in hospital.
  • For clarity around the large number of false negative COVID-19 test results (April). A high rate of false negative COVID-19 test results means that a significant number of people could be carrying the virus, wrongly assured they are not infectious.
  • For the NHS to put in place a clear strategy to address the backlog of cases for elective surgery (June). We stressed the importance of this being done in a systemic way, with a published strategy that would help to ensure decisions regarding the priority of cases are made transparently and with patient safety at the forefront.

Ensuring the voices of patients and staff are central to our work

As our work in this area progressed, in May, we held a webinar with HealthPlusCare, titled ‘Patient safety: Time for questions? Non COVID-19 care and treatment’. Over 500 participants, including clinicians and patients, joined our discussion on the impact of the pandemic on non COVID-19 care and treatment.

We used feedback from the discussion to inform our submission to the Health and Social Care Select Committee’s Inquiry, ‘Delivering Core NHS and Care Services during the Pandemic and Beyond’. Many issues we raised were highlighted in their report, published at the start of October.

Looking forward

As 2020 comes to a close and we move into the new year, the pandemic continues to hugely impact health and social care. We remain an independent voice for patient safety in this area, bringing attention to patient safety issues the pandemic exposes or creates, and engaging with partners to call for the NHS and Government to act urgently and reduce avoidable harm.

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