Employers must understand that raising concerns is important and to be welcomed, says Kim Holt
Patients First is a network of health professionals and their supporters who are campaigning for openness and transparency in the NHS. We have active campaigners in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
It started with a few of us in December 2011 and is growing organically, building a network across the UK of nurses, midwives, doctors and managers – indeed, any health professional keen to bring an end to the defensive culture of the past 20 years.
My own experience spanned four years. I was excluded from my job and have now returned to it. It is possible to survive, and we hope that we can inspire others to feel confident to speak up.
We have been instrumental in bringing to wider attention the links between bullying and the raising of concerns. In some places, it is seen as unacceptable to challenge the way things are done.
Sadly, however, we continue to be contacted by health professionals attempting to challenge unsafe care or fraud, feeling ignored or victimised and unable to find support elsewhere.
‘If frontline staff are not supported and cannot find anywhere they can be heard, then we are very far away from the aspirations of the recent Berwick review into patient safety’
The pattern is nearly always the same. Employees raise concerns within their workplace about some aspect of patient care and, before they know it, they are being disciplined, threatened with dismissal or bullied to the point of depression or worse.
Dismissals are still taking place, as is gagging. In its Confidentiality Clauses and Special Severance Payments report issued in June, the National Audit Office confirmed that millions of pounds are being spent on severance agreements, but the government had no idea how many were linked to whistleblowers. This is now being looked at.
Retaliation against staff raising concerns about patient care, of course, breaches employment law, but a lone employee is rarely in a position to challenge such behaviour. There is little accountability for bullying, and union support – from any of the unions we are told – is often weak.
If frontline staff are not supported and cannot find anywhere they can be heard, then we are very far away from the aspirations of the recent Berwick review into patient safety.
People who contact Patients First are motivated by a desire to ensure patient care meets at least basic professional standards. When they have found themselves in trouble as a result of this, it is confusing, distressing and often traumatic.
It is the unhelpful response to raising concerns that Patients First is trying to change. We aim to do this by raising awareness and informing people of their rights, but also helping employers to understand that raising concerns is important and to be welcomed, and not punished. We want to make the health service safe for everyone.
I, as one person, cannot individually support all concerned who contact Patients First, so we are developing a network of professionals across the UK to attempt to fill this gap. Help and support can be obtained by contacting us via the website at www.patientsfirst.org.uk. We are always seeking more supporters to help.
There is advice on our website about how to raise a concern and where to go for help, and we try to signpost people. The impact of bullying is recognised and we would recommend that all of those who are feeling pressure and retribution seek professional psychological support.
Currently no one, from healthcare assistant to chief executive, is immune to being punished for raising a concern. We will continue to push forward with the campaign until we stop hearing stories of bullying responses and failures in the system.
We hope that nurses, midwives and HCAs around the country will sign up to support our campaign and we can bring about a cultural change on our frontline.
Dr Kim Holt is founder of Patients First