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Could a ‘culture of fear’ prevent life-saving lessons being learned in the NHS?

Last week, it was reported that Dr Daniel Martin OBE, Head of Intensive Care for serious infectious diseases at the Royal Free Hospital had emailed a report to colleagues during the COVID 19 pandemic, warning them that any ‘leaks to the media’ would be tracked, and that the person responsible for ‘whistleblowing’ would be forced to resign.

With the performance of the NHS already under scrutiny following a number of recent scandals, such as the Ian Paterson Inquiry and the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital Trust Maternity Scandal, and with its resources now stretched to the limit following the pandemic, there are worries that NHS staff may be too scared to speak up, which could result in patients being harmed, put at risk and prevent life-saving lessons from being learned.

What is whistleblowing?

As a medical professional, you have a duty to take prompt actions to raise concerns if you believe that a patients' safety is at risk, or that their care or dignity is being compromised. Anyone who works (or has worked) in the NHS, including agency workers, temporary workers, students, volunteers and governors, can raise concerns and should do so by contacting the NHS Improvement’s Enquiries, Complaints and Whistleblowing team. If need be and serious it may then be escalated to another relevant body, such as the Care Quality Commission.

Only last year, The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock vowed to end the use on non-disclosure agreements, that prevented NHS staff from speaking out, saying “Making someone choose between the job they love and speaking the truth to keep patients safe is an injustice…”. In response, the government brought in tougher measures to prevent employers using NDAs to stop workers from reporting poor care.

Is whistleblowing important?

Unfortunately, there are too many examples where NHS staff have had to ‘blow the whistle’ on situations and practices where they believe that patient safety has been compromised, or that there are unsafe working conditions, which has then resulted in their own detrimental treatment and some have felt it had a detrimental affect on their career within the NHS.

However, staff should be encouraged to report any issues, as whistleblowing is often the first indication that there is a much wider problem and, on many occasions, have uncovered major failings and scandals such as those mentioned above.

Early detection of failings is vital, as they can allow for practices and procedures to be amended and improved, preventing further injury, trauma and possibly even deaths of patients.

It is vital, if lessons are to be learned that medical professionals feel safe and are able to report poor care or incidents that occur, safe in the knowledge that their career will not be compromised.

In doing so, they can protect patients from similar failings happening in the future.

Whistleblowing has and will continue to be the cornerstone to patient safety and the safety of NHS staff; it is fundamental if we are to have an open, transparent NHS that shares best practice, and more importantly, learns from its mistakes.

Let us take it from here.

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