Coroner criticises hospital trust for ‘disrespectful and extremely misleading’ letter

A hospital trust sent out an “extremely misleading” letter to public figures as the inquest into the death of a patient was due to open because they were worried about press coverage.

Brighton and Hove senior coroner Veronica Hamilton-Deeley criticised the trust for its handling of the “worrying matter”.

She said the “disrespectful” letter, seen by the Press Association and signed by Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust’s chief nurse Nicola Ranger, made the inquest of Joan Blaber sound like the coroner was hosting a “tea party” rather than a formal judicial inquiry.

It was sent to local politicians, civic leaders and health chiefs, the court heard.

The family’s barrister Helen Pooley said news of the letter caused Mrs Blaber’s relatives significant distress and left them questioning if any more information was still to emerge.

Clare Hennessey, representing the trust, said the letter was a bid to offer reassurance and be “open and transparent”, adding: “(The trust) were concerned the inevitable press interest (in the inquest) may lead a number of patients to be concerned or for stakeholders to say ‘What’s going on?'”

She said the trust was “absolutely committed” to ensuring nothing like the incident involving Mrs Blaber ever happened again.

This was the third time the coroner had hit out at the trust during the inquest for not disclosing information, something the family’s legal team described as “missed opportunities”.

Flash was removed from the hospital immediately after Mrs Blaber (pictured) died but at a pre-inquest hearing in June, Mrs Hamilton-Deeley was critical after learning the trust had re-introduced the product a month earlier over complaints about cleanliness.

The trust attempted to play down testimony from housekeeper Daniel Gonzales – who told the court staff heard a “story” that a dementia patient was found drinking toilet cleaner – by claiming it was a rumour or a hypothetical cautionary tale offered as a warning during training. But evidence from the Care Quality Commission later confirmed there had been an incident at the hospital in July 2016 in similar circumstances.

In this third incident, the trust’s own lawyer was not told about the letter. It only emerged when passed to the coroner anonymously amid jury deliberations.

It is understood the message was sent by email to some recipients on September 10, the day the inquest opened.

Mrs Hamilton-Deeley expressed concern that some paragraphs contained inaccurate information, or could alternatively suggest testimony given under oath was wrong.

She said the note implied the incident was reported immediately to the police, adding: “This gives an extremely misleading impression as to what actually happened.”

The inquest heard officers were not contacted until eight days later, affecting their ability to collect forensic evidence.

Housekeeping checks which review how chemicals are stored were now carried out on a daily basis, according to the letter.

But evidence from trust staff confirmed these were not carried out to the same extent on weekends, which was significant because the incidents in question occurred on a Sunday, Mrs Hamilton-Deeley said.

Ms Ranger, chief nurse at the trust, said: “I don’t believe it was a mistake releasing that letter but I do believe we should have shared that with the coroner.

“All we did with our interested parties was alert them that this inquest was going to be taking place so that if any of their constituents or local public spoke to them about it, they were fully informed the inquest was taking place.

“We shared no clinical details, all we did was primarily alert of actions we took after the immediate event and also let them know the inquest was coming.”

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2018, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Family Handout / PA Wire.