Exclusive interview with the new chief executive of Bedford Hospital

THE new chief executive of Bedford Hospital pauses. He is only a few sentences into describing his role, but he isn’t sure if he should call his job ‘fun’.

Because, as he admits, he oversees an organisation that has to find ways to trim £11.7million from its spending over the current financial year, while keeping the same high standards of care and becoming more integrated into the community.

But he admits that, after nine months, he still genuinely enjoys his job. He met with Times & Citizen content editor Ben Raza.

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Joe Harrison started his role at Bedford Hospital NHS Trust in February, taking over from Jean O’Callaghan.

And after 20 years working in the NHS, he was pleasantly surprised by how firmly the hospital is embedded within the local community.

Mr Harrison, who is married with two-year-old twins, said: “I was at the AGM recently, and there were so many people there.

“I wondered why they had all come, but when I spoke to them afterwards so many of them said that they just wanted to keep in touch with what was going on at their hospital.

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“When you combine that with how much the staff support the hospital, it’s really superb.”

During the current financial year the hospital trust is working to trim £11.7million from its budget.

And while Mr Harrison said the trust had already identified around £8million-worth of savings, he stressed that there were no plans for job cuts.

He said: “If you get the clinical bit right then you save money. For example, screening someone for cancer is a hell of a lot cheaper, with better outcomes, than treating someone later who has stage four cancer.

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“That’s how you help people’s health and improve the hospital’s financial performance.”

Although the trust continues to look for savings, Mr Harrison said it had also committed to spend £290,000 over the next two years on an external team to come in as external staff. He said the onus would be on them to deliver savings and better ways of working.

He said: “There’s a certain outlook at Bedford sometimes of ‘We can do it ourselves.’

“That’s fantastic, but we don’t want to overload. That’s something we can’t allow to happen, and these consultants are here to help us deliver sustainable change.”

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Mr Harrison gave one example of better working as the hospital working more closely with NHS Bedfordshire on bowel screening programmes.

He said: “This is one area you need imaginative thinking.

“By getting more involved in the screening programme people are more likely to have elective surgery, when they discover they need surgery and come to us in good time.

“Elective surgery means better outcomes for patients – and that has to be a good thing.”

He added: “The national picture is all about moving work out of acute hospitals and into the community, but you don’t get a more community-based hospital than Bedford. So for me it’s about building Bedford into a real hub for community wellbeing.

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“We’ve got a fantastic location in the heart of town, but one challenge is how do we use that to better support the people of Bedford?

“We were a traditional district general hospital. Now we are developing into a health community that provides a full range of different services.”

While there are no cuts in staff planned, Mr Harrison was said the situation on bed numbers was less clear-cut.

“I’ve made a commitment to the staff that we are not following a redundancy programme of any sort at the moment,” he said.

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“I have been pushed hard to say whether there will be redundancies in the future. My answer is that we spent £8million last year on bank and agency staff – until that comes down then it would be madness to do that.

“So I am saying quite clearly that we are not going down that line. But I can’t say that there will never be redundancies, because you can never say never.”

But Mr Harrison was keen to challenge conventional thinking on hospital beds.

He said: “The question I get asked most is ‘Will you cut the number of beds?’ My answer is ‘I genuinely don’t care,’ because for me it is really about the number of people you treat.

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“A hospital in Bedford with 400 beds could be better than, or worse, than a hospital in Bedford with 300 beds or 600. The key is whether you treat people the right way.

“It’s about treating people at the right time, by the right people, in the right places.”

Mr Harrison he also stressed the hospital’s hygiene record, which he said he wanted to build on.

He said: “Last year we had our lowest-ever infection rates. We had two cases of MRSA for the whole year.

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“We treat 60-70,000 in-patients and day patients a year. And we’ve had one case of MRSA so far this year.”

Mr Harrison also referred to one pilot ward, where staff check patients every two hours to check they are okay.

“It’s that personal care element that the NHS can lose sight of,” he said. This pilot has been received really, really well, both by patients and staff.

“And it reinforces why people want to work in the NHS in the first place,”

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