“Blame Culture” in the Irish Healthcare System – another ARCH blog post

Another excellent blog post on the ARCH website, this time by Dr Marcella McGovern, on the blame culture of the Irish health system. The trigger for this article was the recent controversy on “hidden waiting lists.” This led to a rather predictable response from the current Minister for Health:

The Minister for Health, Simon Harris, responded to this programme by saying that he “intends to shine a light” on management in the Irish Health Service Executive (HSE) and that if management does not “measure up”, they will be removed from their roles.

 

Tough talk, but as Dr McGovern writes:

 it fails to acknowledge the Government’s responsibility for that problem. Governance, performance oversight and holding the HSE to account for the implementation of national health policy are key functions that the Minister for Health and his Department are responsible for performing on an ongoing basis; not in response to a crisis. The question put to Ministers for Health in a crisis therefore, should be where in your Department’s oversight of the HSE did you fail to detect this problem and what steps are you taking to correct the problem and ensure that it doesn’t happen again?

 

Of course, this is hardly new:

Paul Cullen highlighted in an analysis piece in the Irish Times (Irish Times, 11th February 2017) that Minister Harris’ predecessor, Leo Varadkar, similarly promised that “heads will roll” over hospital overcrowding. Yet, this winter again saw overcrowded Accident & Emergency Departments resulting in planned inpatient and outpatient appointments being postponed.  The back-log of these postponed appointments are now contributing to the current crisis over long waiting lists, illustrating that unjustifiably “blaming the bureaucrats” (Dubnick, 1996) has knock on effects.

 

Dr McGovern uses the work of Dubnick on “prejudical blame culture” as a framework for her piece:

Three major conditions (for defining prejudical blame culture):
1. It makes no requirement that the blamed person or collection of persons have assumed responsibility for the condition they are blamed for; rather, it targets an ill-defined but inclusive group that everyone knows to exist (e.g. bureaucrats);

2. It doesn’t require any role for the blamed in contributing to the cause of the blameworthy or harmful condition. It is assumed that the vaguely defined ‘they’ are highly influential in shaping the world;

3. [It] eliminates the need for any degree of specificity regarding what the harmful condition entails. It could be the decline of the economy, or the loss of national prestige, or the general malaise of society. (Dubnick, 1996: 22).

Dr McGovern’s work, in the ARCH context, is on the effect on system readiness for innovation. Of course, blame culture has a much wider impact, paralysing innovations beyond the technological sphere:

From a Connected Health perspective, there is a danger that a blame culture demonstrated at the highest levels of the Irish health system will have a trickle-down effect, compromising system readiness for innovation. If the Department of Health blame the HSE for poor management and the HSE blame the Department of Health for inadequate resources, and if clinicians blame managers for excessive bureaucracy and managers blame clinicians for resisting change; organisational trust may be lost in the battles between “us” and “them” (Firth-Cozen, 2004). Within such environments, potentially transformative leaders and early adopters behave cautiously and become reluctant to take “ownership” of innovations (Heitmueller et al. 2016), which by their nature carry the risk of failure and unintended consequences (Ash et al. 2004).

 

 

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