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Avoidable unsafe care kills and harms thousands of people in the UK each year. When a person dies as a result of a preventable error it is vital that we learn from these tragic events and take action to ensure that this does not reoccur. Coroners' Prevention of Future Deaths (PFD reports) are a crucial resource for this and should be used to make healthcare safer. Are we utilising these to their full extent to improve our safety practice and to achieve their aim, to prevent future deaths?
There is a statutory duty for coroners to issue a PFD report to any person or organisation where, in the coroner’s opinion, action should be taken to prevent future deaths. These reports are made publicly available on the Coroners Tribunals and Judiciary website with the organisations involved having a duty to respond within 56 days.
When serious incidents occur in healthcare that result in the death of a patient, PFD reports play a key role in identifying what went wrong and the actions needed to prevent this reoccurring. These crucial insights may often be applicable beyond the organisation in which this took place and provide a point of wider system learning.
While these reports provide a wealth of information, the key challenge is ensuring that we utilise these to their full extent to improve patient safety and care. At Patient Safety Learning while we recognise the important role these reports have to play, we have some concerns about how they are currently acted on.
When actions are requested by the coroner, it is not clear under the current system whether there is a structured process, either at a national or individual organisation level, for monitoring the actions implemented in response to the PFD report.
There is also an open question about who is held accountable if the actions requested are not fully implemented, or if the response taken is ineffective. It is difficult to assess how healthcare providers go about this as there appears to be no specific system of monitoring this at a national level.
As noted earlier, often the learnings from PFD reports may be applicable beyond the organisation involved. However, at present there appears to be no clear system of sharing these outcomes more widely. Although these reports are published online, they are not in an easily searchable or shareable format and it is difficult to draw out common themes, actions and responses.
Furthermore, it is not clear whether NHS England and NHS Improvement undertake any central trend analysis or review to draw out common themes that may be applicable to all organisations, in the same way that the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch does when it publishes its investigation reports.
We have recently written to the Chief Coroner, Judge Mark Lucraft QC, to raise these issues. We have also drawn this to the attention of Dr Alan Fletcher, the National Medical Examiner. As the new National Medical Examiner system is currently being rolled out across England and Wales, their role in ‘ensuring proper scrutiny of all non-coronial deaths’ will be complementary to the current PFD system. We feel it is important that coroners and medical examiners take a consistent approach to reporting and sharing learnings as widely as possible.
When we receive responses, we will take this up directly with NHS England and NHS Improvement, and other national bodies with responsibility for patient safety, along with our ideas of actions that we feel could help to address the current gaps in the system:
1) Analyse reports - Sustainability and transformation partnerships (STPs)/Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) to carry out annual thematic reviews of all PFD reports, Serious Incident (SI) reports and associated safety action plans. These plans can inform future commissioning, safety action plans and Care Quality Commission oversight.
2) National oversight - put in place a clear system of national oversight.
3) Increase transparency - make all PFD reports, SI reports and their associated safety action plans available in the public domain.
4) Improve accessibility - create a central repository for all PFD reports, SI reports and associated safety action plans in one database searchable by actions and themes.
5) Standards - put in place patient safety standards for each STP and ICS, with requirements on individual trusts, primary care networks and service providers to share learning from these reports.
6) Publish an annual report - on PFD reports and SI reports including themes for learning and action.