Berwick report

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The Berwick Report (named after its lead author, Don Berwick) was written to address the problems that arose at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust.[1]

This seminal report deserves a wide audience, but has gone largely ignored.

Executive summary of report

Place the quality of patient care, especially patient safety, above all other aims.

Engage, empower, and hear patients and carers at all times.

Foster whole-heartedly the growth and development of all staff, including their ability and support to improve the processes in which they work.

Embrace transparency unequivocally and everywhere, in the service of accountability, trust, and the growth of knowledge.

At its core, the NHS remains a world-leading example of commitment to health and health care as a human right – the endeavour of a whole society to ensure that all people in their time of need are supported, cared for, and healed. It is a fine institution. But the events at Mid Staffordshire have triggered a need to re-examine what the NHS does and determine how it can improve further. The only conceivably worthy honour due to those harmed is to make changes that will save other people and other places from similar harm.

Our job has been to study the various accounts of Mid Staffordshire, as well as the recommendations of Robert Francis and others, to distil for Government and the NHS the lessons learned, and to specify the changes that are needed.

The following are some of the problems we have identified:

  • Patient safety problems exist throughout the NHS as with every other health care system in the world.
  • NHS staff are not to blame – in the vast majority of cases it is the systems, procedures, conditions, environment and constraints they face that lead to patient safety problems.
  • Incorrect priorities do damage: other goals are important, but the central focus must always be on patients.
  • In some instances, including Mid Staffordshire, clear warning signals abounded and were not heeded, especially the voices of patients and carers.
  • When responsibility is diffused, it is not clearly owned: with too many in charge, no-one is.
  • Improvement requires a system of support: the NHS needs a considered, resourced and driven agenda of capability-building in order to deliver continuous improvement.
  • Fear is toxic to both safety and improvement.

To address these issues the system must:

  • Recognise with clarity and courage the need for wide systemic change.
  • Abandon blame as a tool and trust the goodwill and good intentions of the staff.
  • Reassert the primacy of working with patients and carers to achieve health care goals.
  • Use quantitative targets with caution. Such goals do have an important role en route to progress, but should never displace the primary goal of better care.
  • Recognise that transparency is essential and expect and insist on it.
  • Ensure that responsibility for functions related to safety and improvement are vested clearly and simply.
  • Give the people of the NHS career-long help to learn, master and apply modern methods for quality control, quality improvement and quality planning.
  • Make sure pride and joy in work, not fear, infuse the NHS.

The most important single change in the NHS in response to this report would be for it to become, more than ever before, a system devoted to continual learning and improvement of patient care, top to bottom and end to end.

We have made specific recommendations around this point, including the need for improve training and education, and for NHS England to support a network of safety improvement collaboratives to identify and spread safety improvement approaches across the NHS.

Our ten recommendations are as follows:

  1. The NHS should continually and forever reduce patient harm by embracing wholeheartedly an ethic of learning.
  2. All leaders concerned with NHS healthcare – political, regulatory, governance, executive, clinical and advocacy – should place quality of care in general, and patient safety in particular, at the top of their priorities for investment, inquiry, improvement, regular reporting, encouragement and support.
  3. Patients and their carers should be present, powerful and involved at all levels of healthcare organisations from wards to the boards of Trusts.
  4. Government, Health Education England and NHS England should assure that sufficient staff are available to meet the NHS’s needs now and in the future. Healthcare organisations should ensure that staff are present in appropriate numbers to provide safe care at all times and are well-supported.
  5. Mastery of quality and patient safety sciences and practices should be part of initial preparation and lifelong education of all health care professionals, including managers and executives.
  6. The NHS should become a learning organisation. Its leaders should create and support the capability for learning, and therefore change, at scale, within the NHS.
  7. Transparency should be complete, timely and unequivocal. All data on quality and safety, whether assembled by government, organisations, or professional societies, should be shared in a timely fashion with all parties who want it, including, in accessible form, with the public.
  8. All organisations should seek out the patient and carer voice as an essential asset in monitoring the safety and quality of care.
  9. Supervisory and regulatory systems should be simple and clear. They should avoid diffusion of responsibility. They should be respectful of the goodwill and sound intention of the vast majority of staff. All incentives should point in the same direction.
  10. We support responsive regulation of organisations, with a hierarchy of responses. Recourse to criminal sanctions should be extremely rare, and should function primarily as a deterrent to wilful or reckless neglect or mistreatment.

The NHS in England can become the safest health care system in the world. That will require unified will, optimism, investment, and change. Everyone can and should help. And, it will require a culture firmly rooted in continual improvement. Rules, standards, regulations and enforcement have a place in the pursuit of quality, but they pale in potential compared to the power of pervasive and constant learning.


This article is a work in progress. Please feel free to contribute to it.