A report into whistleblowing in Britain’s socialised health service has revealed how those who speak up are sidelined and ‘crushed’. The investigation by Sir Robert Francis QC has also taken two months longer than expected because the inquiry was inundated with more than 18,000 submissions, The Telegraph reports.
A confidential survey was sent to all NHS workers, employers and associated organisations and a review was conducted of whistleblowing policies in the health service compared with other sectors and countries.
They also held in-depth interviews with representatives of interested parties about the perceived barriers to raising concerns in the NHS.
In a damning indictment of the state of the National Health Service, Sir Robert said:
‘The message from staff who have suffered as a result of raising concerns has been loud and clear. I heard shocking accounts of the way some people have been treated when they have been brave enough to speak up. I witnessed at first hand their distress and the strain on them and, in some cases, their families. I heard about the pressures it can place on other members of a team, on managers, and in some cases the person about whom a concern is raised.
Though rare, I was told of suicidal thoughts and even suicide attempts. The genuine pain and distress felt by contributors in having to relive their experiences was every bit as serious as the suffering I witnessed by patients and families who gave evidence to the Mid Staffordshire inquiries. The public owe them a debt of gratitude in the first place for speaking up about their concerns, and secondly for having the courage to contribute to this Review.’
Senior doctors and nurses told how their careers were damaged after they alerted NHS managers of problems in the system. One doctor told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme about the failures he saw while working as an ophthalmologist and particularly with diabetic patients being discharged before they had been seen by a consultant. “They return a few months later with bleeding in their eyes” the doctor, who chose to remain anonymous, said.
“For me, I was not aware of whistleblowing and all these repercussions and I felt that my highlighting these issues would be applauded but it was not.
“They started defaming me as an inefficient doctor, a slow doctor. I was given a clear message that if I wanted better career progression opportunities I should better leave the job in a department which was already short of doctors.”
He didn’t lose his job, but he says he lost work and started grievance procedures.
“Bullying becomes normal for you, you get ostracised…life becomes difficult for you,” he said.
Sir Robert was appointed by the Health Secretary after he chaired the public inquiry into the years of appalling care at Mid Staffs hospital where staff who tried to raise the alarms about problems said they were bullied and even afraid to leave the hospital grounds unescorted.
The Barrister, whose son is a trainee doctor, raised concerns about “complacency” in the NHS where there is an attitude of complacency and tolerance of errors and failings in care.
“The vast majority of those receiving care in an NHS hospital get perfectly acceptable care,” Sir Robert said. “The trouble is it’s no use being satisfied or complacent — if we ran our airline industry on the same basis planes would be falling out of the sky all the time.
“We’ve just got to change the attitude that because it’s provided by the state, it’s all right for a number of people to be treated badly — well, it’s not. Airlines would go out of business very quickly if they worked that way.”
And he also condemned the “Godly status” in which medical professionals are held, which he says has stifled the political debate about the NHS and turned it into a sacred cow with its failings unable to be discussed.
But he credits Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, with using his position as a representative of patients, not “as a spokesman for the NHS”.
Sir Robert said the Mid Staffs inquiry he chaired exposed the “consequences for patients when there is a ‘closed ranks’ culture” – and warned that every time the NHS treated a whistleblower badly, yet more were deterred from “doing the right thing”.
The inquiry has heard from senior doctors and nurses who say they were hounded out of their jobs, with some losing their homes, careers, and health, after going public about their concerns.
The report can be read in full here.