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Last Updated: Friday, 9 May, 2003, 06:52 GMT 07:52 UK
NHS 'getting better'
NHS staff were praised

Patient care in the health service in England and Wales is improving, according to an independent NHS watchdog.

A report by the Commission for Health Improvement (CHI) says national standards have led to better and more consistent care in the NHS.

New premises, technology, and modern equipment mean much better care for patients than 10 years ago, it says.

But improvements remain "patchy", with continuing staff shortages and some dirty premises.

CHI's chair Dame Deirdre Hine told BBC Radio 4's Today programme there had been "tremendous advances" in many areas.

The bottom line is that the NHS as a whole is getting better
Dame Deirdre Hine

She said: "People are getting treated faster, getting treated with very up-to-date methods of treatment and, in particular, they're being given a lot more information."

But she picked out mental health services as an area which needed particular improvement.

There was also a shortage of specialist staff in cancer and pregnancy services, she said.

Not enough had been done either to tackle hospital-acquired infections or to phase out mixed wards.

Targets warning

The report also warned that the improvements could be put at risk by the scale of government-led reform, and a concentration on short-term waiting-list targets.

Committed staff
Faster treatment
New premises and technology
More patient information

But it commends staff in the NHS as "almost universally" committed, caring people, who are striving, under great pressure to do their best for those who use the service.

Dame Deirdre said: "We do not reach the conclusion that everything is rosy in the NHS, but nor do we conclude that it is generally failing.

"The bottom line is that the NHS as a whole is getting better."

Liberal Democrat health spokesman Dr Evan Harris urged the government to stop setting political targets for the NHS.

"Political targets can distort priorities and damage patient health outcomes... they do not deliver improvements in real patient care," he said.

270 inspections

The NHS Confederation, which represents NHS managers and trusts, welcomed the report as "refreshing" and reflective of public opinion.

Mental health services
Staff shortages
Mixed wards
Waiting-list targets could distort priorities

Chief executive Dr Gill Morgan said: "This report highlights that the hard work being done by all NHS staff is having a real impact.

"We now need to build on improvements and ensure that examples of best practice are spread throughout the service."

The Department of Health said increased funding for the health service would continue to generate improvements.

Shadow Health Secretary Dr Liam Fox MP said: "The level of hospital acquired infections and the government's continuing failure to end the practice of mixed sex wards are issues of enormous concern.

"The government's obsession with targets, and the clinical distortions which these cause, shows that Labour is more concerned with quantity rather than quality in the NHS."

CHI was set up three years ago as the independent inspection body for the NHS.

The report is based on the 270 inspections, 10 investigations and a review of cancer services conducted by CHI to date.

The BBC's Karen Allen
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