THE chief executive of Colchester’s hospitals yesterday issued reassurances to patients and staff over high death rates.

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Dr Gordon Coutts said his main focus was to continue with the improvement work already in place and not be distracted by a forthcoming investigation into higher-than-expected mortality rates recorded at Colchester Hospital University NHS Foundation Trust.

The trust is one of a total of nine to be examined by medical director Sir Bruce Keogh following the publication of the Francis inquiry into mistreatment and neglect of patients at Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust.

The Essex trust, which runs Colchester General Hospital and Essex County Hospital, will today find out the exact details of the investigation from the NHS Commissioning Board.

The trust’s board of directors was yesterday updated by Dr Coutts at a public meeting at Colchester General Hospital.

Afterwards, he told The East Anglian Daily Times: “Our focus is carrying on doing the improvement work we’ve been doing for two years to make the hospital safer and better.

“The focus for me and for all of the staff is ‘keep on doing what you’re doing, keep on improving the way we provide care in terms of quality, dignity and individuality to patients.’

“We have seen a year-on-year improvement and we want to keep on doing that work not get distracted by this investigation.”

He said the board had been looking at mortality rates for some time and had already introduced measures – such as re-organising how emergency patients came in and employing four extra consultants – to improve patient care.

Dr Coutts said: “With the investigation, we shall work very closely with Sir Bruce Keogh and show him all our data and, most importantly, all the work we are doing – we have been doing masses of work on this.

“We will share all of our stats and all of our actions with them and see if they can help us improve even further.”

Between July 2011 and June 2012 there were 2,151 patient deaths recorded at Colchester General Hospital and Essex County Hospital – 16% higher than predicted, according to the new Standardised Hospital Mortality Index.

During yesterday’s meeting Dr Coutts said the new indicator, which also includes any death that occurs 30 days after a patient is discharged from hospital, did not take into account levels of deprivation, palliative care and the age of the local population.

He said these factors were particularly relevant for the area and the population Colchester’s hospitals serve and when they were taken into account under previous indexes, the mortality rate was at the expected level.

Published figures highlighted a sharp increase in hospital deaths last August. Dr Coutts said 88% of these were among “towards end of life” patients with two-thirds aged 80 or over.

But Dr Coutts said he accepted the investigation had to take place.

“I can see why the Department of Health want to have an investigation and leave no stone unturned after the Francis inquiry,” he said.

“But I’m confident this trust is safer now than it’s ever been before because of the actions we’ve taken.”

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