The Care Quality Commission has appointed one of the country’s most senior nursing directors as its first national guardian for the freedom to speak up within the NHS.
Dame Eileen Sills, chief nurse at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, has been appointed to the role, which has been created as part of the government’s response to the review on raising concerns in the health service by Sir Robert Francis.
“I fully appreciate that this is a very big and challenging role”
Dame Eileen will be charged with helping lead a “cultural change”, initially within NHS trusts and foundation trusts, so that healthcare staff “always feel confident and supported to raise concerns about patient care”, said the CQC.
Among her responsibilities, she will “lead, advise and support” a network of local freedom to speak up guardians who will be responsible for developing a culture of openness at trust level.
She will also be required to share good practice, report on national or common themes and identify any barriers that are preventing the NHS from having a “truly safe and open culture”.
The CQC said Dame Eileen would be “completely independent, highly visible, and will speak freely and honestly about where changes are needed” among trusts.
While she will work in partnership with national regulators and NHS England, she will also take an “independent stand to report on any matters of concern affecting these bodies when required”, said the CQC.
Her immediate priorities will be to respond to the recently closed consultation on the role of the national guardian and establishing the office, which due to become operational on 1 April.
“I am very pleased that such an eminently well qualified healthcare professional has agreed to take up this post”
Dame Eileen will remain in her post at Guy’s and St Thomas’ but has stepped down from her role as the trust’s executive lead for speaking up safely to avoid any conflicts of interest.
In addition, she has also stepped down as senior nurse advisor for the Nursing and Midwifery Council and chair of the Shelford Nursing Group of Chief Nurses, which represents the country’s 10 leading teaching hospitals.
The need for an independent national guardian for the NHS was highlighted by Sir Robert Francis in his Freedom to Speak Up report, which was published in February 2015.
His review on whistleblowing found that vital information about mistakes and concerns was not being raised by NHS staff routinely.
It concluded that reporting systems were either insufficient or not used or healthcare professionals did not feel able to speak up.
The creation of the national guardian was one of the key recommendations from the review, with plans to take the idea forward confirmed by the health secretary last July.
Commenting on the appointment of Dame Eileen, Sir Robert said: “I am very pleased that such an eminently well qualified healthcare professional has agreed to take up this post.
“The task of creating the post and supporting the freedom of NHS staff to speak up will be challenging but I am confident Dame Eileen is the right person for this role,” he said.
CQC chief executive David Behan added: “Dame Eileen is a leader of exceptional quality and so I am delighted that she will be the first national guardian for the NHS.”
Dame Eileen herself said she understood “what it is like to provide care on the frontline” and “how difficult it is for staff always to have the confidence and courage to speak out”.
“In this role therefore, I will take my current experience, working with individuals and organisations to learn the lessons from reviews and investigations to date,” she said.
She added: “I fully appreciate that this is a very big and challenging role, but with the support of the staff who work in the NHS, I have no doubt that we can make the changes together that are needed to deliver a new culture of transparency and openness.”
Dame Eileen has been chief nurse at Guy’s and St Thomas’ since 2005. She was awarded a CBE in 2003 for services to nursing and made a dame in the 2015 New Year honours list.