Every time something goes wrong in the NHS it creates a paper trail… And that means that investigators can use the Freedom of Information Act to find out exactly what has happened.
If something happens on a ward – from patients abusing staff all the way to clinical errors – it needs to be recorded. These events are known in the NHS as “Serious Untoward Incidents” (SUIs).
Every time one of these incidents occurs it is reported through the NHS – from the ward up to managers to the regional body that is responsible for the clinic.
If an investigator hears about an organisation reporting to itself they should think of one thing straight away – the Freedom of Information Act.
The trick to making a really good FOI is to learn about the kind of information you want to find. I did this by reading about NHS advice on reporting Serious Untoward Incidents.
This document told me exactly how these incidents were reported – as well as how much personal information they contained. That allowed me to craft an FOI to get exactly the detail I wanted whilst making sure I avoided exemption under the Data Protection Act.
I’ve set up a GoogleDoc so you can see just how I framed my request.
Key points to remember with FOIs:
- Research what you are looking for beforehand and use the language of the organisation you are requesting from. This will help you get exactly the information you want. Policy documents are always the first thing you should read…
- If you think there are reasons the information will be exempted under the Freedom of Information Act make sure you negotiate to get as much as you can. Head off any concerns you have early!
- Don’t be afraid to cite the act itself. Use the law to get the information you want. If in doubt the Information Commissioner’s website is a great place to start.
The request got me exactly what I was looking for – a complete catalogue of Serious Untoward Incidents from a local mental health trust (but be aware of the recent NHS changes – make sure you send your request to the right people).
Have a look at the catalogue here.
There are lots of things that can be done with this catalogue. First of all we can look through it to see what serious events have occurred in my local area’s mental health trust. Secondly we can convert the document into a spreadsheet to do data analysis with it – which I will show you in the next tutorial.
MORE FOR JOURNALISTS
Matt Precey did a great story for BBC Essex on Serious Untoward Incidents. Not only did he get the registers of untoward incidents, but he got the individual reports themselves. He could do this as the reports are anonymised. So for anyone with a taste for FOI, getting a database like the one above can be a great starting point for some serious data-mining that can make a story sing.
You can also find data on SUIs and ‘never events’ on HMI contributor Melanie Hall’s blog.