I have just had the quick chat I hoped for with Ross Finnie about the Patients Rights Bill due to be debated at Holyrood this afternoon. He told me why the Liberal Democrats are so opposed to it and what he would do in its place.
Ross started off by giving a bit of background about how we'd got to where we are with this Bill. He told me how the legislative process had started off with a consultation during which patients' groups had expressed a desire for something which brought patients' rights all together in one easily understood document, but they didn't want a lawyers' charter. The SNP Government ignored a lot of what they were saying and brought forward this very limited Bill with its clause 18, which makes it unenforcable.
He said to me that even then, this Bill had brought all the rights together, then it might have had some merit. However, he then went on to list 17 fairly fundamental rights which the Bill leaves out. These include things like the right to a GP, to mental health advocacy, to a second opinion. Even something as basic as requiring all health professionals to show due care and attention just isn't there.
I asked him what he would do if he were the Cabinet Secretary for Health. He said that he was impressed with what had happened in places like England and Australia where a Patients' Charter had been revised and updated in consultation with Patients' Groups. These documents were written in plain English and were easily accessible.
I actually went looking and found that the Australian version shows another glaring omission from the Bill - something as basic as the right to privacy and confidentiality.
Anyway, back to Ross. He told me that he'd make sure that the Charter was more than words on a page if he were the Cabinet Secretary by issuing it as a direction under the NHS Scotland Act 1978 requiring NHS boards to comply with it. I asked what that would mean for the patient. He said that rather than go through an expensive and lengthy legal process, a simple letter to the Cabinet Secretary showing how the Board was failing to comply with their direction would be an option if the complaints process failed to provide a satisfactory response.
I asked him about resolving complaints as I had often felt that better communication with patients and their families and a more genuine approach to complaints could resolve many issues satisfactorily at a much earlier stage. Ross said that what most people actually wanted was an apology when things went wrong, and that was one thing that they were often denied as NHS institutions felt that to offer one would be to concede legal liability. He wants to see some sort of non litigious settlement procedure where people can have that sort of honest discussion.
He said that the only bit of the Bill which had "serious merit" was the Schedule at the end (which you can find here on page 12). "What Patients' Rights Groups want, " said Ross, "is not a half baked law, but high quality, patient centred care and good communication to be elevated. The Schedule should be the basis for action, not tacked on at the end."
He expressed his frustration that Labour, who have argued against the substance of this Bill from the start, saying how bad it was, have now inexplicably decided to support it.
My conversation with Ross confirms my earlier instinctive view that this Bill will ultimately offer as much benefit to patients as a chocolate teapot. In fact, it omits so many basic and fundamental rights that it could actually be counter-productive. As ever, it's the Liberal Democrats who look beyond the words and see how the law will work in practice.