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Whistleblowers call for NHS culture change


The NHS is uncaring and only pays lip service to an open culture, according to a lawyer representing a newly launched group for health service whistleblowers.

Patients First includes nurses, doctors and managers who have spoken out about patient safety concerns within their organisation, many of whom have been suspended or lost their jobs as a result.

Speaking at the launch of the group on Wednesday evening, Richard Stein of the group’s solicitors Leigh Day & Co said the problem was not that there was no whistle blowing policy but that NHS organisations did not follow it.

Mr Stein said: “The NHS pays lipservice to a culture that allows and encourages whistleblowers, but it rarely provides a context in which people feel able to come forward. I can’t think of an organisation that cares less for its employees.”

Leigh Day and Co, which has represented numerous NHS employees in legal disputes with their employers, has threatened South London Healthcare Trust and Ealing Hospital Trust with legal action if they fail to show they are acting to protect whistleblowers.

Mr Stein said the trusts were chosen because they both had recent high profile cases where employment tribunals had found in favour of whistleblowers, making it difficult for them to deny they had a problem. The solicitors have also challenged the CQC and NHS London to show what action they have taken to protect whistleblowers in each trust in line with their respective responsibilities or they could also face a judicial review.

At South London Healthcare, consultant Ramon Neikrash was suspended in 2008 after writing a series of letters to management warning about the impact of cost cutting. An employment tribunal ruled the suspension was unlawful and Mr Neikrash had been acting as a whistleblower.

Meanwhile, at Ealing radiology service manager Sharmila Chowdhury was unfairly treated by her employer when she was suspended over an unfounded allegation of fraud, after she raised concerns about patient safety and senior doctors carrying out private practise on NHS time.

Patients First is led by Kim Holt, the paediatrician who raised concerns about the clinic where Baby P was seen before he died. She has recently returned to work after more than four years.

Practice nurse Loo Blackburn, who is in the middle of a constructive dismissal dispute with NHS Oxfordshire after raising concerns about a GP in Oxford, is also a member of the group.

Dr Holt said: “There is a real need to change the culture of the NHS to one of openness and transparency and not one where the truth is often hidden and employment laws mis-used to silence critics.”

In response to the legal threat, South London Healthcare Trust said in a statement: “We have consistently said that the former Queen Elizabeth Hospital Trust had been wrong to suspend the doctor concerned and that our new trust, created after these incidents occurred, has publicly apologised. We have a policy on whistleblowing in line with DH guidance.

Ealing Hospital NHS Trust said in a statement that it had responded to Leigh Day and Co on 12 December, enclosing a copy of its whistleblowing policy.

The statement said: “The trust has had two cases related to whistleblowing in the last two years and both cases are on-going. In both cases the trust undertook an appropriate internal investigation and in one case commissioned an external investigation to look at the concerns raised which found no wrong doing.”

It added: “The trust is aware of likely amendments to the NHS constitution regarding whistleblowing early next year and if this were to take place the trust’s policy will be amended to reflect these changes.”


Readers' comments (21)

  • michael stone

    'The NHS pays lipservice to a culture that allows and encourages whistleblowers'

    'There is a real need to change the culture of the NHS to one of openness and transparency and not one where the truth is often hidden and employment laws mis-used to silence critics'

    Yes - but that change in culture does not seem to happen, does it !

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  • Agree.

    Have a look at the web site

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  • Hurray for Patients First, Kim Holt and the solicitors who are key to this too. Where there is good leadership, none of these things happen – no cover ups, no silencing of brave staff, no kangaroo courts, no destruction of excellent practitioners.
    I’ve been receiving emails from people for over 8 years now ( and although the specific stories are all different, the processes and dynamics that follow are very similar, often with professional jealousy being an important factor it seems.
    People are kept waiting for weeks sometimes to find out what are the allegations against them, their defence is ignored, a disciplinary hearing follows the same path (some people have had documentary evidence to show that the allegation cannot be substantiated but are still ignored) and the practitioner is punished. The whole process can take months – all at tax payers’ expense. Very often, the staff member leaves the NHS and even their work. Colleagues have no idea of the suffering and harm caused.
    The Department of Health refuses to know anything about it. At this moment in time they cannot even say how many staff are currently suspended, for how long, why and how the investigation is being conducted. Forget guidelines and principles, policies and processes. These people just ignore them. Staff are so powerless and it is all so hidden. The Black Hole of the NHS. Why aren’t the unions more proactive? Why indeed.
    So please God, Patients First will cause changes to happen that will protect both patients and staff for good.
    Julie Fagan, founder member, Campaign Against Unnecessary Suspensions and Exclusions UK

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  • I endorse the above- unions are also not proactive enough , I am now unemployed- I spoke out.

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  • isn't the NMC supposed to be involved in this and even the RCN. The NMC claim their role is to protect patients and the public from malpractice so why are nurses being suspended who whistle blow against malpractice. It doesn't seem to make much sense.

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  • tinkerbell

    Julie Fagan | 16-Dec-2011 3:15 pm

    Well said Julie. About sums it up in its entirety. A totally corrupt system that needs a total overhaul. Much the same as we had when the police investigated the police. I hope we can move forward, quickly, with the changes that need to be made to protect the whistle blowers from the backlash of speaking out.

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  • George Kuchanny

    Hi Anon 20 DEC 10:25 - Yes, makes no sense at all. The NMC in my experience so far work for Trusts. Maybe this will change soon. Currently a whistleblower can be suspended or sacked for making a manager uncomfortable and the NMC do nothing but support this and even worse the RCN seem to turn a blind eye but when it comes to malpractice or an easily avoided death... you know the rest.

    Three words desribe the culture, these three words undo much good work and bury us in a storm of horror stories. They are an accurate description of a culture widespread within NHS Trusts.

    Promotion of mendacity.

    It is a culture that will destroy the NHS from within if it is not rooted out soon. It is a culture that reduces nursing. It is a culture doctors instigated, born in the dark days of quackery years ago when medicine was still struggling with very incomplete knowledge. Now it is used to cover silly errors.

    Nurses need not bend to pressure to comply with this culture. They never did get anything out of it really apart from a nagging sense of unease. Now, with modern medicine in a much better informed state the only 'winners' if you can call them that are incompetents. Not people who make genuine mistakes, it is the incompetents who are the only (in quotes again) 'winners'.

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  • it is not leadership if complaints from whistle blowers cannot be accepted and taken action on as appropriate. it is not leadership to suspend skilled and capable clinical and other staff whose aim is protect patients, colleagues or other members of the public.

    Some people in perceived positions of leadership need to examine their own roles and practice!

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  • Excerpt from the NHS Leadership website

    “4.1 Ensuring Patient Safety
    Leaders ensure patient safety: assessing and managing the risk to patients associated with service developments, balancing economic considerations with the need for patient safety.

    Competent leaders:
    • Identify and quantify the risk to patients using information from a range of sources
    • Use evidence, both positive and negative, to identify options
    • Use systematic ways of assessing and minimising risk
    • Monitor the effects and outcomes of change
    Contextual Indicators
    Stage 1: Own practice / immediate team
    Puts the safety of patients and service users at the heart of their thinking in delivering and improving services. Takes action to report or rectify shortfalls in patient safety.
    Stage 2: Whole service / across teams
    Reviews practice to improve standards of patient safety and minimise risk. Monitors the impact of service change on patient safety.
    Stage 3: Across services / wider organisation
    Develops and maintains audit and risk management systems which will drive service
    improvement and patient safety.
    Stage 4: Whole organisation / healthcare system
    Creates a culture that prioritises the health, safety and security of patients and service users. Delivers assurance that patient safety underpins policies, processes and systems.”

    Does this not include the need to whistle blow if any of the above factors are not up to standard. There is little point in carrying out any of these exercises and keeping them to oneself!

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  • michael stone

    'Anonymous | 20-Dec-2011 10:25 am

    isn't the NMC supposed to be involved in this and even the RCN. The NMC claim their role is to protect patients and the public from malpractice so why are nurses being suspended who whistle blow against malpractice. It doesn't seem to make much sense.'

    I tried to complain about a policy which in my opinion would lead nurses to do something probably illegal to the NMC a year or so ago.

    Based on the NMC's reply that it wouldn't get involved in such considerations of policies, it appears that the NMC will only consider the clinical competence of, or complaints of a different nature against, INDIVIDUAL nurses.

    This does leave the question of who 'addresses the problems of bad organistations/structures' - but so far as I can see, the answer to that question is 'not the NMC, and probably nobody at all !'.

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