NEWS ANALYSIS: Organs scandal comms reveals PR crisis in NHS


report into the Alder Hey organs scandal has created a national outcry

about body parts stored in hospitals. As Chris Mahony reports the

scandal has also re-opened the debate about effective communications

within the NHS.

As a name for a pressure group, Parents who Inter Their Young Twice

(Pity II) is pretty startling. But it captures the emotional atmosphere

preceding last week's publication of the report into the Alder Hey

stored organs scandal.

Dozens of PR teams around the country are now facing similar challenges

after health ministers published a 'census' of organs and other body

parts removed and stored without the informed consent of relatives.

Restoring public confidence is sometimes not helped by the doctors


A senior pathologist recently warned that a downturn in organ

availability after publicity about the scandal would 'be a high price to

pay'. He may have been right - the trouble was he was speaking at a

government-organised summit which had heard agonising personal stories

from parents.

It was hardly a surprise that the next Alder Hey parent to speak

observed: 'I buried my daughter for the third time before Christmas - I

think that is a high price to pay.'

It was symbolic of the cultural clash between devastated parents and the

mostly well meaning but sometimes unworldly world of medicine.

Great Ormond Street Hospital NHS Trust chief press officer Stephen Cox

gives another example: 'I have heard doctors say we should ask parents

to sign post mortem consent forms when the child comes into hospital.

You pick yourself up off the floor and explain you are dealing with

people's feelings.'

Cox says that his role is straightforward: providing clear and honest


'I think in future this story will be taught as a textbook example of

how you can't spin your way out of a problem. We will get through this

by being honest with parents. It is not about me giving a nice statement

to the press, but about making sure the helpline is working. You can't

talk about a PR operation - it is internal and external


His hospital has already been dealing with the issue for at least a


Bereaved parents are promised a reply later this month. They are also

asked if they would prefer to hear the news by letter, phone or

face-to-face from a nurse.

He insists this reactive approach, waiting for parents to call, is the

correct one: 'It is a mistake to assume every parent wants to know. To

get in touch prematurely is cruel.'

Jonathan Street, whose PR company's contract with Alder Hey was

cancelled just weeks before the report was published, is advising his

other clients named by the organ census to be as open as possible.

'The trouble is that what hospitals can't tell relatives in the first

call is exactly what they want to know: 'Are you keeping our relatives'


He says that trusts are quite rightly following national orders in

setting up helplines and compiling a record of retained tissue.

But Street warns the Alder Hey experience shows that the latter is a

painstaking process - something that must be explained to the local

media: 'The worst thing you can do is give out inadequate or possibly

wrong information (to relatives). Trusts must tell the local media that

this is something that cannot be done overnight.

'Alder Hey was under enormous pressure to give information and the

mistake they made was to give information that was incomplete,' he


As a result, body parts were returned on a piecemeal basis and families

were forced to hold up to four funerals for the same child. He backs the

trust's offer to fund these further funerals.

Street's view of Alder Hey's communications performance is more positive

than that outlined in Michael Redfern's report. Redfern concluded that

'parents only received information if they asked for it and many did not

know what to ask for in the first place'.

Distraught parents saw the hospital as obstructive and evasive. When top

Alder Hey managers left the London summit early, one mother lashed out

physically. Their decision to leave just as the discussion was thrown

open to the floor was a stunning miscalculation which left the

Government's top doctor, chief medical adviser Liam Donaldson, almost

speechless with frustration.

Despite the protestations of some parents that the summit was a

whitewash, it did carry the air of a collective mea culpa by both

medicine and government - a unique event in the history of the NHS.

The public sector is often accused of defensiveness and obsessive

secrecy and PRCA chairman Dr Tom Watson is among the critics: 'Sadly it

(the NHS) often takes a minimalist, reaction-only approach to PR when

issues are complex. The results are often disastrous to the NHS's

reputation. This approach starts at the top of the NHS and percolates

all the way down to frontline services.'

With the exception of Great Ormond Street, trust PR bosses approached

for this piece reverted to type, either not returning telephone calls or

referring to local press releases co-ordinated through the Department of

Health and the Central Office of Information.

Each release apologised and gave helpline numbers but without explaining

that the process of cataloguing could take some time. They did however

emphasise the value of research and teaching with organs.

Perhaps this pitiful story is a start in fulfilling the communicator's

role as a bridge between two very different worlds.

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