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We Need to Talk About Whistleblowing

The National Health Service (NHS) is the cornerstone of healthcare in the UK, and can only thrive if there is a culture of transparency and honesty. One such mechanism is that of whistleblowing; a system in which NHS staff can raise concerns around, for example, unsafe practices and poor working conditions, without fear of repercussion. However, sadly, this is not the reality, and whistleblowers are increasingly finding their livelihoods at risk, with changed working conditions, conduct investigations, and even unfair dismissals resulting from reports they have made in the interests of patient safety.

Maintaining patient safety and ensuring quality of care is the foundation of the medical profession. The GMC mandates that doctors must take prompt action if they think patient safety or dignity is, or may be, seriously compromised. But to do so, their job - and the way they are treated - must be protected. In fact, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) states that whistleblowers are both protected from unfair dismissal and detriment, with detriment meaning (in this context), being treated worse than before, or having their situation made worse. Thus, if someone is dismissed from whistleblowing, it is treated as an unfair dismissal. This is great in theory; however, the truth seems to tell a different story. Recent news reports highlight incidents in which whistleblowers have experienced systemic bullying and harassment from managers and colleagues, including investigations into their own conduct, which frequently results in suspension. An investigation published in The Telegraph found that NHS employers are ‘more likely to investigate the conduct of whistleblowers than the issue they have raised’ and that, of 52 whistleblowers interviewed, 41 claim to have been investigated after raising concerns.

Campaign group Justice for Doctors (JFD), representing 140 whistleblowing doctors, highlights further issues, including the financial implications of whistleblowing. Some doctors have been forced to sell their homes to pay legal fees, and speak of the hugely detrimental impact on their mental health. JFD is fighting for compensation for doctors who have lost their jobs and experienced mental health problems, as well as calling for hospital managers to be held accountable should patients suffer. An article in The Times quotes several consultants, one of whom said his experience of the aftermath of whistleblowing was ‘as traumatic as a war zone’.

Current GMC policy recognises that there may be an ‘element of fear’ when raising issues and suggests bearing in mind that, ‘You have a duty to put patients’ interests first and act to protect them, which overrides personal and professional loyalties. This is sound advice, however, the fear of losing your job, your income, your mental health, and your home may not be mitigated by the assurance that you have a duty to report your concerns. There are organisations, however, that protect you, as well as charities to support your wellbeing, also outlined in the GMC article.

The big question that arises is whether whistleblowers should have to experience this fear in the course of their duty to protect patients. That they are indicates a systemic failure. This situation demands an immediate culture shift, from the ground up, and it needs to start now.

CBS advocates for stronger protections and support for NHS staff members who raise concerns in the interest of patient safety. We can only continue to protect patients if we are ourselves protected. If you need support, please contact CBS.

CBS is committed to the physical and psychological wellbeing of its members and their families. CBS members have access to a comprehensive Employee/Member Assistance Programme (EAP) through Health Assured, offering confidential counselling, legal support, bereavement assistance, medical guidance, and online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), along with the Wisdom app and additional resources for a holistic approach to wellbeing.

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