On Monday night The Frontline, RTE’s flagship current affairs show, broadcast a special programme on the state and direction of our health service.
Advertised for a week in advance, the programme promised to tell us if our health system is on the right track or going backwards?
A larger than usual studio audience was given an hour and a half to discuss their experiences and assessments of a number of aspects of health provision, including the HSE, the beds crisis in hospitals, the uneven nature of GP cover and the slow rollout of the government’s primary care service.
The panel and audience included a good mixture of patients, family members, campaigners, policy analysts, voluntary bodies, GPs, consultants, nurses and HSE management.
The show ended with a 15-minute interview with Minister for Health and Children Mary Harney.
Many of the contributions, both from the audience and panel, were insightful and informed. A number of the stories of patients let down by our health system were scandalous. Over and over again patients and health professions described the failure of our health system and government health policy to meet the needs of the population. The anger in the audience was palpable.
Unfortunately, judged by its own stated aim, the programme was an abject failure. And the responsibility for this failure lies with RTE and Frontline presenter Pat Kenny.
At no stage during the show did Kenny attempt to ask the two most important questions that lie behind the real life experiences detailed by patients and health professionals throughout the programme; namely, why is our health service in such a mess and who is responsible?
This was tabloid television at its worst, a kind of Joe Duffy on screen. At certain moments Pat Kenny sounded more like Dave McSavage with his drawling Duffy impression urging audience members to tell him, ‘how bad does it make you feel..'.
Kenny’s patronising questioning of patients, health professionals and HSE management was ill-conceived and poorly executed.
As the temperature of the debate began to rise, Kenny’s grip on the programme began to slip away.
Patients and health professionals became increasingly angry and HSE managers became more defensive. Insults began to fly just before Kenny’s interview with Harney, and set the mood for the programme’s final descent.
In the booing and jeering that followed each of Harney’s well rehearsed evasions, the real issues were lost.
In the end the deeply embedded structural inequalities that underlie almost all aspects of the design and provision of health care in Ireland went unmentioned, save a few stolen interventions from the floor and panel.
Why do private patients receive diagnosis quicker than public patients? Why do we have less hospital beds today than in the 1980s? Why are public consultants incentivised to treat private patients better than public patients? Why do communities with high levels of socio-economic deprivation have less GPs per head of population than wealthy communities? Why are local hospitals being downgraded before primary care teams are in place and increased investment in centres of excellence allocated?
Crucially, why do so many people die prematurely each year because of inadequate access to life-saving diagnosis and treatment?
The failures in our health system are in the first instance political failures. They are failures of the government and senior management of the HSE.
That our publically funded national broadcaster chose to ignore these questions is an indictment of RTE, its flagship current affairs programme and its overpaid presenter.