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Will greater protection for whistleblowers change anything?

  • 31 Comments

Dr Graham Pink reflects on what’s changed since he became nursing’s best known whistleblower in the 1980s.

I read with interest the health secretary’s expressed concern for whistleblowers. This follows nurses and midwives repeated unease that speaking out can seriously damage your health, not to mention employment prospects. Yet the appalling situation which I was involved in twenty years ago – patient neglect, bullying, oppressive and lying managers and eventual dismissal (by kangaroo court)  apparently continues, as I read on nursingtimes.net. This not only from lay administrators but, to their eternal disgrace, nurse managers, the very people who should be the first to expose unacceptable practice.

In the late 1980s, when my predicament received national attention, while some bedside staff were arraigned before the UKCC on disciplinary charges, it was unheard of for a nurse manager ever to be so dealt with. In fact, my case starkly highlighted the then council’s costly bureaucracy, secrecy, blatant acceptance of dreadful standards of patient care, and its total disregard of managers’ reported malpractice. I do hope the present NMC bears no resemblance to its former useless self.

In 1992, basing my observations not just on the Stockport revelations but on the evidence of thousands of letters received from nurses, doctors and members of the general public, I wrote of ‘submissive and powerless nurses with national leadership which could hardly be more insipid if it tried. At all levels, it seems, no one is prepared to accept responsibility, to say “the buck stops here”. As a body, nurses (and I use the word to include midwives) are two thirds of a million strong but our mouse like demeanour ensures that we are too often treated as a dormant, easily pushed around bunch of handmaidens, the tame gofers of the health service.

Would such a comment, eighteen years later, be an inappropriate anachronism? I would be delighted if that was the case. The Mid Staffordshire scandal, however, suggests otherwise.

Mr. Andrew  Lansley is to be heartily commended for his directive but will it change anything? Until nurses are prepared to stand up and be counted, en masse if need be, the prospect is bleak. Clearly nurses must think twice before stepping out of line. But are there no limits to compliance? Has nursing yet come into the 21st century? I neither understood nor accepted the widespread subservience to authority. The whole induction into nursing, the training, experience and mentation were designed to lead to a compliant, uncomplaining, uncritical worker – at worst an automaton and at best a caring person but one constantly frustrated, whose job was to manage no matter what the circumstances and never, never to complain. Good nurses did not complain, moan, remonstrate or appear unhappy. It was just infra dig in such a genteel and respected occupation (the word ‘profession’, I suggest, is pretentious and inappropriate). Nurses like to be liked; they need to be liked and some behaviour, such as exposing poor quality care, is (at least was) really beyond the pale. Am I way outdated expressing such notions? Please tell me I am.

I do not for a moment doubt that the vast majority of nurses are dedicated, honest and fully committed to their calling but a few can become careless, uncaring, even  dangerous. The problem is that colleagues are most reluctant to report an incompetent member of staff –  managers unwilling to tackle their failings.

When invited to advise nurses what they ought to do if they witnessed patient neglect (or, as in my case, were reduced to actually abusing frail, helpless, elderly ladies and gentlemen) I can do no more than say you have a conscience; listen to it, and do what you know to be right and proper. Once every single nurse in the country accepts this responsibility, this duty, this hard earned privilege come what may, we may have made a start in consigning the inelegant word ‘whistleblowing’ to the archaic section of the nursing dictionary.

Sadly, I suspect it won’t be in my lifetime. 

Dr Graham Pink

  • 31 Comments

Readers' comments (31)

  • 'I do hope the present NMC bears no resemblance to its former useless self', I hate to be the one to dissapoint you, but...

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  • i totally agree as well

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  • Nice to hear from Grahem Pink who was a Charge nurse at Stockport when I too was there as a ward sister. However its a pity that little has changed nationwide. I.m afraid that neglect particularly of elderly patients remains common, but the bigger problem is that nurses themselves do not always even recognise it as such. My elderly ill confused father was discovered by my family and I when we visited him in an acclaimed teaching hospital ward to be sat completely naked below the waist in full view of the entire ward. There were 3 qualified nurses sat nereby at the nurses station just talking together. When we raised the problem they were quite indifferent, as this occured twice we made a formal complaint and were told by the modern matron that the nurses were engaged in "important portfolio work"! Whats worst is that I was made to feel guilty that I had let the side down by complaining as they knew that I was a nurse! Whats happened to putting the patient first, compassion, vocation, and effective supervision and leadership. I don't buy into the usual excuse of "too busy / no time" while it is certainly an issue the real problems are much more serious and so difficult to tackle. I have withdrawn from clinical nursing and now work in academia (non nursing) as I no longer wish to be associated with nursing, and yes I feel guilty about that too!

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  • "This follows nurses and midwives repeated unease that speaking out can seriously damage your health, not to mention employment prospects. "
    "Once every single nurse in the country accepts this responsibility, this duty, this hard earned privilege come what may, we may have made a start in consigning the inelegant word ‘whistleblowing’ to the archaic section of the nursing dictionary.

    Sadly, I suspect it won’t be in my lifetime."

    Equally sadly I have to agree with Dr Pink. His story was current when I was training, and helped highlight to me some of the responsibilities that came with our Code of Conduct (24/7), and the importance of integrity. Yet even though each organisation I've subsequently worked for has whistleblowing & dignity at work procedures, woe betide anyone who highlights concerns or even just tries to maintain their own standards. You soon discover the procedures are merely words, & until that changes Andrew Lansley & his 3-country equivalents can say what they like. I have experienced an organisation do everything possible to discredit concerns & colleagues who verbally had same concerns hide away/change their stories in self-preservation. Discrediting an individual is so much easier for an organisation than addressing issues, management putting their hand up to where they've fallen down &/or risking bad publicity.
    Integrity and standards have a very personal cost.

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  • Having ruined my career by speaking out about poor practice and even poorer, bullying management whose only concern was that they gave the air of everything being in good fettle. This included medics as well as nurse mangers. I too found that policy was just words and must never be put into action. However I will continue to speak out till things improve and staff and management remember we are not there to be popular with management but to do what is best for our patients.
    They and we must remember if it was not for the patients we would not have a job.

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  • I agree with you Scott; my career hasn't been ruined, but it very nearly was once when I took on management, and has come close to that a couple of times since. For speaking out for those patients we may not have a job either.

    Things will never change. Policies are just fancy rhetoric that they will never act on unless it suits them.

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  • Well done Dr. Pink - and everyone else who stands up and is counted. He is right, we all have a conscience and if we all used it properly there would be less abuse etc to report in the first place. I have blown the whistle numerous times on bad practice and have been dubbed a trouble maker as a result. However I don't care as I'm not in my job to be liked, I'm in it to protect the vulnerable. I get liked out of work - hopefully! Policies are only worth the paper they're written on if they are used effectively otherwise they may as well gather dust on a shelf somewhere. Again it's down to humans to do the right thing. It really isn't rocket science - treat as you would be treated.

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  • Hate to break it to you Dr. Pink but I think the NMC is worse. Please come over to the Militant Medical Nurse blog if you can. Google it.

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  • Very Sad but But Dr Pink is Spot on and if anything things are worse
    My Managers are back biting, Blame anyone, never tell you anything, i am so glad i have just over 5 years till i retire they wear you down, As for the No Blame Culture," words" thats all they are why dont we bring back the guillotine ?as far as management are concerned as long as they can blame someone and its not them they have the "Im alright jack attitude"
    very disallusioned

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  • What happened to patient care ??????

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