Health and Social Care Secretary Jeremy Hunt inspired staff to prize patient safety above all else and to speak up if they have concerns and to admit to errors.
"There is a world of difference between gross negligence and human error," he said, to a packed-out room at Watford General Hospital during his visit on Friday 15 June.
"We have to be brutally brave when it comes to safety."
Mr Hunt recounted how he took on his role when the full horrors of poor care at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust were hitting the headlines. Reading the detailed report into those events, and meeting bereaved relatives whose love ones had died as a result of the errors in the healthcare they received, has – he said – had a profound effect on him.
The 70-plus staff also heard NHS England’s medical director Professor Steve Powis speak about the importance of creating a transparent culture with a focus on learning and not blaming.
The trust’s chief nurse Tracey Carter and deputy medical director Dr Anna Wood also presented and reminded the audience of the trust’s recent successes.
Tracey Carter said she was confident that the culture of the trust was heading in the right direction. She added that; the trust’s stroke team have had the highest AA rating for nearly two years; ambulance handover times are falling and there is a sustained reduction in hospital-acquired infections.
Dr Wood spoke about the trust’s plans to appoint external senior consultants to review the files of patients who have died. Professor Powis said he was pleased that the trust is going one step further than others by having these reviews carried out by doctors who were not trust staff.
After the speeches, Mr Hunt – who is now the UK’s longest-serving health secretary – fielded a range of questions from staff covering; resources for children’s mental health services; staffing; the junior doctors’ contract; the potential of technology to transform healthcare; the reduction in beds in the community and the urgent need to invest in the trust’s estate. On that point he said that it was an accepted fact that the trust’s estate urgently needs capital investment.
He added: "Staff at West Herts have been on an amazing journey since the trust was placed in special measures and have made some incredible improvements. I’d like to wish their outgoing chief executive Katie Fisher all the best as she leaves the NHS this year - she’s led the trust to make profound improvements in the face of rising demand."
Trust chairman Professor Steve Barnett said: "Patient safety is our top priority, so it was great to hear the Secretary of State give such an honest and insightful talk on this topic. The fact that it was a ‘standing room only’ event showed how passionate our staff are about what they do and how much the NHS matters to them.
"Whilst we don’t have new buildings to show off, Jeremy can’t fail to have been impressed by what he heard from our staff about our appetite to keep our improvement journey going. It was great to have his congratulations in person for moving out of special measures."
Richard Harrington, MP for Watford, said: “I’m so pleased that Jeremy accepted my invitation to come to Watford and speak to staff face-to-face about plans. Our hospital staff are first class, but now we need the first-class facilities to match. I will be working closely with the Department for Health and NHS staff to make sure we have the funds we need.
"But today was also a celebration of the patient safety journey which the hospital has been on. We’ve seen sustained improvements across the board, with the Trust moving out of special measures earlier this year. This is not just down to the hard work of the fantastic leadership team, as all of the staff there have worked tirelessly to drive up standards."