Fresh calls have been made for an inquiry into claims that a senior NHS boss put patients lives at risk in order to meet Labour health targets and then gagged a whistleblower. Dame Barbara Hakin, who earns £205,000 a year in her current role, was previously cleared by the General Medical Council (GMC). Now that decision is being reviewed, as no independent report was commissioned during the last investigation.
Dame Barbara, 57, was director of the East Midlands Strategic Health Authority when, in 2009, she was accused by Gary Walker and other senior executives at the United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust of prioritising the enforcement of targets over patient safety, the Daily Mail has reported.
Mr Walker and his colleagues allege that their criticism in part resulted in their Trust being ranked in the bottom 25 of the Department of Health’s mortality league tables, and to comparisons being drawn with Mid Staffs, the scene of hundreds of avoidable deaths through poor care.
They took their case to the GMC, but after investigating the allegations, the body concluded that Dame Barbara had no case to answer as there was no realistic prospect of finding her fitness to practice as a physician had been impaired in relation to any of the claims. In 2010, Mr Walker, who had been sacked, was made to sign a gagging order as tribunal legal costs mounted.
However, following complaints to the watchdog, the GMC has decided to re-open the case. It has called for an independent report into the affair as the lack of such a report “may amount to a material flaw in the investigation.”
“There are concerns that the evidence gathered in the initial investigation did not go far enough in relation to allegations surrounding patient safety,” it has said, concluding that the review “is necessary to protect the public.”
“The specific question here is whether Dr Hakin’s fitness to practise could be called into question on the basis of her insistence that ULHT met the NHS targets no matter what. Further evidence from an external independent expert would have been useful to consider whether Dr Hakin’s actions were reasonable in all of the circumstances,” it added.
Dame Barbara, who now works as National Director of Commissioning Operations for NHS England and has been called “the most powerful woman in the NHS”, has called the allegations “spurious and vexatious”, saying they originated in the “failure” of the Trust’s board to adequately manage its hospital. She insisted that the continuing allegations amounted to a “campaign to discredit” her.
Mr Walker said yesterday: “I am delighted the GMC is now considering that when Dr Hakin put pressure on me and my colleagues to hit targets it may have put the lives of patients at risk.
“The NHS tried to gag me and prevent me from giving evidence to the GMC but what really happened is finally being exposed. I hope now the GMC will do the right thing and seek to remove Dr Hakin’s licence.”
A GMC spokesman said the Council was “reviewing a decision made as part of our original investigation” but added that Dame Barbara was not under investigation.