Acceptance of unsafe and poor-quality care caused hospital scancals, according to Professor Sir Bruce Keogh.
Investigations into Mid Staffordshire Hospitals had shown that good, caring people found themselves accepting increased risk to patients despite knowing something was wrong in their treatment, Professor Sir Bruce Keogh said.
The medical director of NHS England said this came from a range of factors, including the belief that “things happen” as well as staff feeling unable to challenge established practices and senior colleagues.
Sir Bruce said: “Acceptance is different from complacency, and can be insidious and dangerous.
“When you know something is not quite right and feel a little uncomfortable and you tell yourself that maybe it’s not so bad after all, you are accepting poor practice.
Sir Bruce listed some of the reasons for accepting poor practice as a mixture of “emotion, embarrassment, fear of upsetting professional colleagues” and sometimes convenience.
He added: “When that happens, you lose your professional and personal compass, and that’s the danger.
At the Patient Safety Congress at Birmingham’s ICC Sir Bruce called on the NHS to embrace precautionary principles and ensure investigation wherever there was a suspicion of harm being caused.
He said: “At both the Bristol Royal Infirmary and Mid-Staffordshire Hospitals, arguments about statistics and data continued while more and more patients were being harmed.
“If Marks and Spencer spot a salmonella risk in their chicken sandwiches, they recall them straight away – they don’t wait for someone to become ill.
“Acceptance of that precautionary principle in the NHS could be our greatest friend, could help negate the need for delayed inquiries into known failings, and could be truly transformational.”