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.”