Image: 'Stockholm, National Museum: packaging rhetoric' from ryan pikkel's Flickr Photostream

This email has been scanned for viruses; however we are unable to accept responsibility for any damage caused by the contents. The opinions expressed in this email represent the views of the sender, not [name removed] NHS Foundation Trust unless explicitly stated. If you have received this email in error please notify the sender. The information contained in this email may be subject to public disclosure under the NHS Code of Openness or the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Unless the information is legally exempt from disclosure, the confidentiality of this e-mail and your reply cannot be guaranteed.

A colleague recently forwarded  me the above ‘small print’ taken from the bottom of an NHS email.  They described the automatically added signature as ‘the kind of nu-speak bollocks that public bodies come up with nowadays’.   The message does indeed seem to take a very long time to articulate almost nothing – in effect taking over a hundred words to say ‘we scanned this for viruses but don’t blame us for any damage – by the way, what you (or we) say may not be kept private’.

It seems that meaningless verbiage is not restricted to email signatures.  A quick search of NHS health strategies and NHS Trust mission statements also reveals an abundance of anodyne and bland words strung together into seemingly impressive proclamations.  On first reading they sound good but actually mean very little.  For example, the foreword to the document outlining the new mental health strategy for England claims that the approach will be ‘putting people who use services at the heart of everything we do’ – a statement much copied on NHS Trust websites.  That sounds fair enough but then how could something that claims to be a health service do anything else?  Historians may conclude that we were so stupid that we needed to write words like this down because otherwise we would get confused and put dogs, cats or water buffalo at the heart of everything we do.

The many (but surprisingly similar) NHS Trust mission statements also manage to turn making obvious and nonsense statements into an art form.  There is much made of ‘values’ and ‘visions’ (without ever any reference to the meaning of vision that refers to mystical hallucinations of things that do not exist!).  Most start by stating that they aim to provide ‘excellent’ or the ‘very best’ care to ‘every patient’ on ‘every occasion’.   Again it is slightly strange that things like this even need to be stated in an organisation that claims to be delivering a health service to patients.  I searched widely but was very disappointed to find none claiming that they would ‘deliver a fabulous experience for everyone we provide with healthcare services’.

These non-statements need to be understood in the current political context, where the NHS, and the services it delivers, are under sustained attack, from certain politicians and certain sections of the media.  Scare and horror stories about sub-standard care abound in the press, whilst the Tory led coalition government seeks to parcel out many NHS services to private providers.  Just this month the decidedly right of centre think tank Reform issued a report claiming that the NHS should be run more like Tesco or Sainsbury.  It argued that the NHS should not rely on additional funding from government but should instead allow private companies to deliver better and more efficient care – ‘the NHS is itself a barrier to good patient care’.  I am sure that the fact that ‘Reform’ received funding from private healthcare organisations is purely coincidental to the conclusions to their report.

There is an alternative view – one based on actual research. In the same month as the Reform report the Commonwealth Fund published a report comparing healthcare amongst 11 leading western nations.   Their report found that overall the United Kingdom’s NHS ranked first.  It provided the best quality care, the most effective care, the safest care, the most patient centred care and had the best access.  It also had the second lowest health care expenditure per capita.  The country with the worst and most expensive healthcare was the USA – somewhere the private sector dominates in the provision of health services.

We can draw two conclusions from this.  First, perhaps Tesco or Sainsbury should try and learn something from the NHS – they may end up providing a better and more efficient experience to their customers.   Second, maybe NHS websites should all change their mission statements to something simpler and more accurate:

‘We provide the best, safest and most efficient healthcare in the world and it’s far better than that found in the private sector’.