In a report published today, CQC reviews inspectors’ observations from the first year of assessing how well trusts are implementing national guidance introduced to support improved investigations and better family engagement when patients die.

National guidance on learning from deaths

National guidance for trusts to initiate a standardised approach to learning from deaths was published by the National Quality Board (NQB) in March 2017, followed by guidance for trusts on working with families in July 2018. Both documents were introduced in response to the findings of CQC’s 2016 thematic review ‘Learning, candour and accountability’ which made a number of recommendations to help to improve the quality of investigations into patient deaths.

The NQB’s national guidance called for trusts to improve processes for identifying deaths resulting from problems in care, to introduce a clear policy for engaging with bereaved families and carers in a meaningful and compassionate way, and to appoint a senior member of staff to hold responsibility for learning from deaths across the organisation. It also set specific requirements for trusts to collect and report information about deaths of patients in their care.

Implementation of guidance - one year on

CQC’s review reveals that a year on, awareness of the guidance is high, and inspections have found evidence of some trusts having taken action to revise policies and establish more robust oversight of the investigation process to ensure learning is shared and acted on.

Overall, CQC found that the key to enabling good practice is:

  • An open and learning culture
  • Clear and consistent leadership
  • Values and behaviours that encourage engagement with families and carers
  • Positive relationships with other organisations
  • The ability to support staff with training
  • The wider resources needed to carry out thorough reviews and investigations

Varying degrees of success between trusts

CQC’s report highlights specific examples of hospital trusts where these factors have been pivotal in supporting compliance with the requirements of the guidance.

However, the amount of progress made to date varies between trusts and CQC analysis suggests that some organisations have found it harder than others to make the changes needed. In particular, improving engagement with bereaved families and carers is an area where some trusts have struggled. Issues such as fear of engaging with bereaved families, lack of staff training, and concerns about repercussions on professional careers, suggest that problems with the culture of some organisations may be a barrier to putting the guidance into practice.

The report highlights that there is some, albeit limited, evidence to suggest that the guidance is better suited to acute trusts rather than mental health or community services. For example, people at Norfolk Community Health and Care NHS Trust said they felt the guidance and surrounding frameworks are “always acute-focused”, whilst a member of West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust felt that implementation of the guidance was more challenging for community services as it “isn’t clear and prescriptive for those different [non-acute] settings.”

Professor Ted Baker, CQC’s Chief Inspector of Hospitals, said:

“Through our well led inspections we have seen trusts that have made positive changes to ensure that learning from deaths is given the priority it deserves. For example, freeing staff up from clinical commitments to focus on implementing the national guidance, introducing clear processes for engaging with families and carers, and strengthening the governance and oversight of mortality reviews.

“However, the speed of progress varies, and our review indicates that problems with the culture of some organisations is preventing sufficient progress. Cultural change is not easy and will take time, but we cannot lose momentum and the current pace of change is not fast enough.

“I urge NHS trusts to use the examples of good practice highlighted in this report to help identify the key drivers to improve learning from deaths, to build on the progress they have made so far and to accelerate the changes needed. We will continue to assess the progress trusts are making through our inspection and monitoring and to hold trusts to account when we find improvements are required.”

“Alongside this, there needs to be continued support from the centre, including support for behaviours that encourage more openness and learning across the NHS, clearer guidance for community and mental health trusts, and a more focused consideration of the progress being made on reviews and investigations of deaths of people with mental health problems or a learning disability which was highlighted as a priority in our original thematic review.”

Miriam Deakin, NHS Providers Director of Policy and Strategy, said:

“When a person dies under NHS care it is vital to ensure that opportunities to learn and improve care are not missed. It is encouraging to see that trusts’ awareness of new national guidance on learning from deaths is high, and that some – though not all – have made good progress.

“We welcome this report which offers practical examples of good practice by trusts, together with useful insights on the changes needed to support a better approach.”

Minister of State for Care, Caroline Dinenage, said:

“We are committed to transforming the safety and learning culture of the NHS to create an environment where staff, patients and leaders are able to speak up and work collaboratively to improve safety.

“The review highlights examples of effective and meaningful engagement with families and a willingness to learn from mistakes, but we share the CQC’s desire to see this progress accelerated in all organisations nationwide.

“It’s absolutely crucial we do all we can to support trusts and their staff in improving patient safety and our consideration of the CQC’s recommendations will be an important part of refining the Programme.”

CQC has been assessing how well acute, community and mental health trusts are implementing national guidance on learning from deaths as part of its annual well led inspections since September 2017.

CQC’s report Learning from Deaths – a review of the first year of NHS trusts implementing the national guidance is based on interviews and focus groups with CQC inspectors and specialist advisors involved in well-led inspections between September 2017 and June 2018. It also draws on a case study analysis of three NHS hospital trusts that have demonstrated areas of good practice in implementing changes to improve investigations and learning when patients in their care die.

Following this review, CQC has committed to further strengthening its assessment of how trusts are investigating and learning from patient deaths and to providing additional support and training for inspection staff involved in monitoring and inspecting trusts progress.

Read the full report here.