Last year wasn't a great one for the NHS. In fact, it was often downright shocking. A barrage of bad news, from care scandals to A&E crises and much more besides, meant its reputation took a battering and left a whole host of issues to deal with in 2014 and beyond.
But as 2013 drew to a close and just as casualty departments were beginning to see the first victims of New Year's Eve excess, an open letter was published in a national newspaper, ostensibly calling for certain groups (notably the media, ministers and the organisation's own bosses) to go easy on the NHS and asking for a "more measured view" to be taken when examining its performance.
The letter was signed by those in charge of various individual NHS organisations, including the Foundation Trust Network (which represents the majority of English hospitals) and the British Medical Association. It was a relatively short missive but its overall message was clear - let's go into the New Year with less focus on the negatives and more on the good work that the NHS carries out.
An extract from the letter states: "Undoubtedly, there are challenges to face in ensuring we have the high quality service that everyone in the NHS wants to offer, including increasing demand on services and the need to do more with tighter budgets. But we need to reach a more measured view of how the NHS is performing. We must strike the balance between recognising the extraordinary achievements that NHS staff deliver every day and the need for improvement..."
Unfortunately, such wishes are highly unlikely to be granted. For while it's undoubtedly true that some parts of the NHS (and most individuals within it) deserve credit, those "challenges" which are mentioned are one heck of an obstacle to overcome.
There are undoubtedly many organisations with problems that they would like to see reported in a more measured fashion but in calling for a greater balance, the signatories of this letter surely can't have ignored the plain fact that bad news will always sell.
You can be pretty sure that whatever government is in power would love to see a focus on policies which are working well as opposed to those which aren't. Similarly, energy companies probably want headlines about investment in infrastructure or employment opportunities instead of a furore about bills going up. But the world doesn't work like that and things aren't going to change anytime soon - including for the NHS, where mistakes and bad management could be a matter of life or death.
What's equally noteworthy are the contradictory messages which have already begun to emerge. For instance, less than two days after the letter was published, an article appeared in another national paper, billed as an exclusive. The story concentrated on a claim by the country's "top emergency doctor" that the current A&E crisis could have been averted if warnings about staffing levels had been heeded by the government. It talks of a "decision making paralysis," a serious shortage of emergency doctors and mass emigration of the healthcare workforce.
The story isn't exactly great PR for the NHS - or the government for that matter. So who is it who has very much gone public with these claims? Well, the country's top emergency doctor is Dr Clifford Mann, President of the College of Emergency Medicine and the very same Dr Clifford Mann who was one of the 10 signatories of the letter published two days before calling for more positive coverage of NHS issues. As a side note, Dr Mann warned last year that many casualty units were becoming like "war zones," which probably didn't do much for the organisation's reputation either.
Perhaps this all boils down to one very simple fact - as long as things keep going wrong, the criticism and the negativity will keep on coming. People genuinely want to see the NHS succeed but in some areas it's falling short and there are real reasons why that's the case.
Those reasons can't simply be swept under the carpet or ignored. The NHS provides a service to us all and, to reiterate, parts of it are delivered in an absolutely first-class way. But the focus will always be on what isn't working, whether it's deaths caused by inadequate care provision throughout an entire hospital, a lack of resources in A&E or individual cases of medical negligence.
At Fletchers Solicitors we receive numerous calls and deal with countless claims from people who have suffered unnecessarily while receiving treatment through the NHS. We see the end results of mistakes and substandard care and the effect this can have on the lives of individuals and their families.
Right now it's clear there are numerous things not working, meaning criticism is inevitable. To hope for anything otherwise is frankly unrealistic.