The UK government has set up a new watchdog tasked with gaining control over the spiralling number of healthcare associated infections in the country, Health Secretary Alan Johnson announced yesterday.

The “tough new regulator” for health and adult social care services - The Care Quality Commission - will work to provide the public “good quality and safe care” in both the National Health Service and independent sector.

“Despite progress, tackling infection remains a challenge for the NHS,” Johnson admitted, adding: “The Care Quality Commission will ensure that all patients receive a safe and quality service, no matter what part of the system they are accessing, and at which point.”

The new watchdog brings together the experience and expertise of the Healthcare Commission, the Commission for Social Care Inspection and the Mental Health Act Commission. But, while its predecessors’ scope was limited to flagging any problems that put patients at risk with the providers and government, the new body has been given extra powers to help it fight issues on the frontline, including: increasing the frequency of inspections of hospitals with high infection rates, including unannounced spot checks; undertaking investigations; issuing warning notices; fining providers; or closing services in order to get them in a fit condition for use.

A more consistent approach

The government hopes that the move will provide “a more consistent approach to regulation”, as well as help cut down on the administrative burdens on frontline services.

Furthermore, the Care Quality Commission will also have an important role in supporting patient choice, it claims, by assessing the performance of care providers and “ensuring value for taxpayers’ money”.

The NHS Confederation, which represents 95% of NHS Organisations, has welcomed the move. Dr Gill Morgan, its chief executive, went on to suggest that the new regulator should be driven by three guiding principles:

“First, the Care Quality Commission must drive up standards across the NHS and not increase the regulatory and bureaucratic burden on NHS organisations…Second, we would like to see a risk-based model centred on self assessment – building on the new approach of the annual health check…[and] finally, the new regulator must not signal a ‘year zero’ approach that discards what has gone before.”

Regarding this last point, she pointed out that the annual health check will be only four years old when the new Commission is established, and that it is also important for the public that there is “a clear sense of continuity so that they are reassured about who is monitoring their health services and where they should go to for information about their local NHS organisations.”

A stronger focus

The move underscores the current drive to get to grips once and for all with rising rates of the superbugs MRSA and Clostridium difficile, which claim thousands of lives every year.

Last month, the fight against hospital-acquired infections stepped up a gear when Prime Minister Gordon Brown promised funds to give hospitals a “deep-clean” to help return them to their original state, and Sir Health Minister Sir Ara Darzi called for the introduction of MRSA screening for all elective admissions next year, with an extension to all emergency admissions within the next three years, in a move that should prove very popular with the voting public.