A LEADING Bolton consultant has spoken out for the first time about the “devastating” probe into hospital death rates.

Dr Kevin Jones — lead consultant for acute medicine at the Royal Bolton Hospital — has strongly criticised the investigation into sepsis coding led by health information experts Dr Foster Intelligence.

As a consultant in acute medicine, Dr Jones was one of the consultants to come under scrutiny in February, 2013, for “significant discrepancies” in data.

Dr Jones said: “It came as a big shock to all of us when it first happened. The fact that people believed that we could be fiddling with mortality figures just broke my heart.

“As one of the three doctors who had been working on improving coding for about four years I was therefore one of the ones investigated.

“I was deeply hurt that people I had worked with for years could be persuaded by this appalling audit.

“People I know were calling me up asking me what had happened and all the while we were just trying to carry on.”

Dr jackie Bene, who at the time of the investigation was acting chief executive of the Trust and who has now been given the post on a permanent basis, “stepped aside” while the probe took place.

Dr Jones said: “It made things very difficult for us and what happened to Dr Bene was terrible. She is a woman of immense integrity and to step aside like that was awful. She was even reported to the GMC at one point, which was just unthinkable.”

The hospital was later cleared of any wrongdoing but the report did raise questions about the way sepsis — which loosely means an infection — is understood by clinicians, coders and analysts.

Hospital Standardised Mortality Ratios (HSMRs) have been published by Dr Foster Intelligence since 2001 and were credited with helping uncover excessive death rates at hospitals such as Mid-Staffordshire.

In a recent File on 4 programme, Professor Nick Black — whose review will be handed to NHS medical Sir Bruce Keogh this year — has warned that current measures can give a misleading picture of a hospital's performance.

Critics of Dr Foster — which include Mr Jones — have gone further to argue such investigations have “trashed” the reputation of hospital’s like the Royal Bolton.

Dr Jones added: “Out of everyone involved in the investigation, my main criticism is of Dr Foster Intelligence. They have their own agenda and I have no respect for them whatsoever.

“Dr Foster is repeatedly becoming discredited and I think its reputation among clinicians has gradually been deteriorating for a long time.

“I love this hospital and I never once thought about leaving. I’ve worked at other hospitals, including ones in America, and I genuinely believe we are on the up.”

BOSSES from Dr Foster Intelligence have defended their decision to launch the investigation — and have disputed Dr Jones claims he was accused of “fiddling” data.

Roger Taylor, director of research, said: “Both the Dr Foster audit and the subsequent alternative independent review concluded that data had been wrongly coded at the Royal Bolton Hospital. Inaccurate coding is a serious issue and it is important it is highlighted, investigated and rectified regardless of the cause, to ensure statistics rating the safety and performance of our NHS hospitals are reliable.

“It is reassuring for local patients to hear that, since we flagged the issue, the Royal Bolton is now working to improve it’s data coding.

“Since 2001, the annual Dr Foster Hospital Guide has shone a light on areas where our NHS hospitals could improve to save lives.

“As the pioneer of analysing and publishing mortality statistics in the NHS for the benefit of patients, we aim to work closely with hospitals to help them spot and improve problems using solid, statistical evidence.

“It is not our role to engage in media speculation on the causes of errors, and we have never suggested the hospital was ‘fiddling’ its data.”