By Myles Cook
“A few months ago, I was interviewed about the accusations levelled at South Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust (SEPT) by Dr Blandford and I was said to be “defending” them. Thanks to that interview, I have been told stories that would make your hair stand on end and the service I have received from Grays Hall Outpatients Department have led me to reconsider my opinion of the mental health provision in Thurrock.
Until recently, I was associated with local voluntary organisations and interest groups and, as such, couldn’t speak my mind as freely as I can now, without my opinions and comments reflecting badly on those groups. Released from those associations, I can now give my honest opinions of SEPT. Hold tight, it’s going to be a bumpy ride from here on in…
SEPT are a mental health provider who seem to be more efficient at Public Relations than they are providing a good service to the service users of Thurrock. A well-oiled PR machine, SEPT publish a magazine called One In Four News that is really nothing more than a SEPT love-in and seems predominently concerned with the newly aquired areas of Bedfordshire and Luton rather than the South Essex area for which it is primarily responsible. If you read their magazine, you would believe that SEPT has no problems but that is a false impression. If you look more closely at the provision in Thurrock, you will find an alarming inconsistency of care.
SEPT make the claim in an advertising poster that they aim to have service users seen by the same doctor each and every time they go for an appointment. This is a claim that they cannot back up in Thurrock as, for Grays Hall Outpatients Department at least, the staff turnover is horrendous. Some service users are lucky in that they do see the same doctor each time but for an increasing number of service users, that is just a hopeful fantasy that will probably go unrealised because SEPT do not pay attention to the concerns raised. And raised they were, at a “Take It To The Top” meeting, where the Chief Executive listened to the concerns service users had. He said that there was a staffing problem in Thurrock and that a review was going to be set up but, months later, has anything changed? Of course not.
I attended a SEPT Public Members meeting last month and I again raised this concern. I was dumbfounded when the Trust’s Public Governor for Thurrock did not seem to know that there is a staff turnover in her area that would be comparable to the patient turnover in a hospital dealing with an outbreak of Ebola. I have to wonder if she really is as worried about the quality of provision as she says she is.
At that same meeting, a service user, who always seems to be pulled out to support SEPT, said that she always saw the same doctor and that she got that through complaining to the Complaints Department. She seemed to think that addressing the concerns of service users to the Chief Executive was a waste of time so why is SEPT so intent on running their “Take It To The Top” meetings? The answer is clear – because they are nothing but another PR stunt. I tried to put the point across that the concerns I was raising on behalf of service users had been put through the complaints procedure with no results but, as deaf to the sound of my voice as the people at SEPT I have talked to, my concerns were ignored and, most patronisingly, made out to be the ravings of a disgruntled individual.
The service that SEPT provide in other areas is not all that bad and I can say that from experience as I have to get most of my services (group therapy and access to the Employment Specialist) from the new Community Resource Centre, located in the Mental Health Unit at Basildon Hospital, due to the fact that, having worked with service users in this area, it would be almost impossible to be in a group that did not contain at least one person who already knew me. In fact, I have to say that the service I get there is fantastic; however, for my outpatient appointments, I get my service through Grays Hall where, and I am not alone in this, I very rarely seem the same doctor twice before they are replaced with someone else.
It is this discontinuity of service that affects the chances of service users to recover or, at least, to live with their condition if recovery is not an option. Going over the same story over and over again because the doctor seems to have neglected to read the notes or because they are a new doctor, just makes the problem worse rather than better. A service user needs to be able to build up a relationship with a doctor so that they know each other and the doctor becomes someone the service user can trust, a tall order when the staff turnover is so high. And when a good doctor comes along, they either leave due to burnout or because they are only assigned to this area for a short time.
Another problem is that of appointments. When follow up appointment dates are agreed in a session between the service user and the doctor of the week, they are very rarely actually made by the Appointments Department. I know from personal experience that agreed upon dates can be booked as it happened to me – once. Most of the time, the service user has to chase appointment times, which is not always good for their mental health. Why is this a problem? Well, to put it in terms that a tabloid journalist would love, it means that there are some people who might not be taking their medication because they are not being monitored as often as they should be and, if even one of them is a possible danger to themselves or others, you are looking at a nasty headline.
SEPT has not dealt with the problems the problems in its provision in South Essex and, already, they have taken over Bedfordshire and Luton and are looking into providing Community Health services. Is this a case of SEPT trying to control an ever-increasing slice of the power and funding in the NHS? The answer has to be – yes. Will they sort out the problems, the cancer growing in the heart of its empire? Possibly, but how many service users will they be failing in the meantime? That question has yet to be answered and it is one on which so much hangs, so many lives, so many broken psyches. I await the answer with much anticipation.