The Royal Sussex County Hospital is safe as any other hospital, according to chief medical officer Katie Urchin.
Professor Urch spoke out after the publication of a critical report by the Royal College of Surgeons following a peer review conducted last May.
She said that University Hospitals Sussex NHS Foundation Trust had asked the Royal College to carry out the review of a its improvement plans after criticism of some surgery in Brighton.
The trust runs the Royal Sussex, in Brighton, and half a dozen other hospitals, including the Sussex Eye Hospital and the Royal Alexandra Children’s Hospital.
Professor Urch said that she and her colleagues wanted the Royal College to look closely at safety systems, outcomes and whether the Royal Sussex was delivering safe care.
She said: “This was in May and we’ve only just received the report. It was a point in time some eight months ago.”
The key questions, she said, was: “Are patients coming in now safe in our hospital?”
The data showed the improvements, she said, adding: “We are within the national benchmarking … We are as safe as any other hospital.”
Professor Urch said that an internal review in October showed improvements since the Royal College visit last May although she said that more still needed to be done including the working culture.
She said: “There was a much better connection between the staff, their lead nurses and their lead surgeons.
“There was nothing in this report (the Royal College report), that was a surprise, that was new or unexpected.
“We need to help high-performing individuals appreciate each other’s strengths and needs.”
She said that some of the criticisms in the report related to incidents that pre-dated the visit, adding: “It’s hard to pull out of this report what is current.”
The review found, she said, “patients were safe and some of those behaviours were historical.”
Despite strict financial regulation of the trust, Professor Urch said key posts had been filled and work was continuing on the modernisation of the Royal Sussex site.
She said: “A new emergency surgeon has been appointed (and) we will be advertising in the next few weeks a significant number of consultant posts.
“The surgical assessment unit is due to open in the next couple of months. It also means that we can expand out theatre base to deal with those emergencies coming in the door.”
Trust chief executive George Findlay told the board last Thursday (8 February): “It’s a tough read. It’s a really tough read – for our staff, our leadership and our patients.”
Dr Findlay said: “Some of the problems in surgery are long-standing. Some improvements will take a long time. Sadly, there are no quick fixes and no silver bullets.”
The trust board was reminded that Sussex Police are investigating claims about patient harm. It is understood that detectives are looking into 40 deaths and adverse outcomes for about 60 other patients.
Dr Findlay added: “We’re not shying away from difficult things and we don’t want to be anything other than completely transparent.”
It was why, he said, the trust had published the Royal College report so soon after receiving it – and with a report from the Care Quality Commission (CQC) due any day.
Another hospital boss, Alan McCarthy, who chairs the trust board, said: “There has been a huge amount of difficult attention at the moment.
“It’s really hard for us to hear as board members – but really tough for people working so hard in surgery teams.
“A lot of the media attention is effectively a series of snapshots – stripped of context and focusing, understandably, on the negatives.
“I don’t want to minimise the challenges – both past and present – but I do think it is important for everyone to understand the situation the surgery teams face and the trust faces.”
He said that the current board and management were brought in almost seven years ago after the previous trust had been placed in “special measures” – for quality and finance.
The previous trust “had a long history of challenges” and Mr McCarthy said: “That was why they were brought in. And one of the biggest challenges was surgery.
“Teams there had already been facing significant difficulties for years. Fixing those problems was never going to be quick.”
He said that a huge effort had been made to understand the problems and to start to put them right before the coronavirus pandemic posed “unprecedented problems”.
Progress had been made by the surgery teams, he said, a fact recognised at the time by the CQC among others.
Mr McCarthy said that the focus given to the covid pandemic “exposed the fragility of the improvements made”.
But by 2022 the trust was “in a totally different environment”, he said, adding: “That was why this report (by the Royal College) was requested.
“It was a recognition that huge efforts had been made, that significant changes had taken place. But it was also a recognition that we needed to do more, that we wanted confidence our plans were the right ones and that we were clear on the issues that remained.
“I feel that the report actually captures much that is good, alongside the very clear challenges, and certainly confirms what we need to do.
“It doesn’t capture more recent developments, of course, since last May. It also references behaviours which are not, and can never be, acceptable. We must ensure everyone works in an environment of respect.
“There is so much noise around surgery at the moment. It is easy to get distracted from the job at hand.
“The job of the trust must be to make sure that surgery colleagues feel supported and heard – and to give them every chance to do the very best job they can.
“The report can help us to do that but we need to use it to help us look forward and not keep looking back.
“If there is evidence of bad behaviour, it will never be tolerated. It will be investigated.
“We’ve got to learn from this because, crucially, we owe it to our patients to restore confidence in our services.”