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BBC Radio 4 Today programme gives a huge PR boost to Circle

Hand on NHS signBBC Radio 4 Today programme gave a huge public relations boost to Circle on 1 August.

Circle chief executive Ali Parsa was interviewed on the reported “improved care” at Hinchingbrooke hospital since Circle took over the franchise.

The problem is that much of what Parsa said was either speculative or aspiration and none of it was supported by evidence.

Circle have no experience of running a large hospital with an A&E department and have not yet steered Hinchingbrooke through a winter, so it is too early to make any assessments on whether they have improved the hospital or not.

Yet the BBC blithely repeat what is clearly a press release from the private healthcare company.

The BBC online report says: “Regional NHS officials monitoring Circle say the company has made a good start, while warning that improvements at the hospital must be sustainable.” But it does not link to the statement and searches of the Strategic Health Authority (SHA) website return no results.

Unattributed statements are not evidence; they are hearsay.

The BBC go on to say: “Before the takeover, ministers had described the hospital as a clinical and financial basket case.” It is true that Hinchingbrooke has and had poor finances (a historical debt of £40 million), but there is no evidence that it is a “clinical basket case”.

The latest Annual Report (which covers ten months of the NHS administration and two months of Circle’s franchise) says that HSMR (the standardised mortality rate) is 77.8 compared to the national expected value of 100 (this is very good); C-diff cases are consistently below the SHA target, and MRSA cases meet the national target. Other quality figures like reducing falls and medical errors are within the trust’s target or reducing.

These are not exceptional values for Hinchingbrooke because earlier annual reports show that the trust consistently does well on all of these clinical quality figures.

You have to question why a minister made out that Hinchingbrooke has clinical problems when it hasn’t, and you have to question why the BBC are reporting this without checking its veracity.

Then we come to the finance situation.

On the Today programme, Justin Webb, the interviewer, asks: “You have got more people coming through the hospital, is that the key to be able to turn it around, or begin to?”

Parsa avoids the question by replying “partly it is that” and then continued to talk about improving procurement. He had reason to avoid talking about patient numbers, because they are not going to plan.

One point of Parsa’s 16-point improvement plan is to increase the number of patients treated each year by 5,000. This means increasing the number of elective (non-emergency) patients because it is much more difficult to make a financial surplus on treating an emergency patient.

However, the finance report from June (remember, these are early figures) shows that the trust is treating more emergency patients, and fewer elective patients than planned. Consequently the income from electives is almost 19% less than they hoped for.

The finance report also says that for the first quarter of the financial year the trust generated a deficit of £2.3 million and this was £652,000 more than their financial plan. Clearly, their finances are not going to plan. Yet on the Today programme we were given the impression that Hinchingbrooke was doing well, and Parsa even said: “The hospital should finish this [financial] year on a balanced book.” You cannot deduce this on their first quarter results.

There is no evidence that Circle will turn around the finances of Hinchingbrooke, yet the BBC allowed Ali Parsa to give the impression that they had changed the financial position. This is incredible PR for Circle delivered unchallenged by the BBC.

Richard Blogger writes about the NHS and social policy at NHS Vault.

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