Doctors call for code to protect whistleblowers

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Pressure is mounting on Government ministers to introduce tougher laws to protect whistleblowers as health professionals and MPs speak out against a "code of silence" in the NHS.

A group of leading doctors are urging the government in this month's Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (JRSM) to consider US-style protection systems which have improved the plight of whistleblowers since the Enron financial scandal.

American whistleblowers are entitled to a proportion of fines imposed on employers who punish or silence employees. In contrast, UK managers and bosses appear to operate with immunity while whistleblowers often face unemployment and financial hardship even when vindicated in court.

Dr Peter Wilmshurst, co-author of the JRSM paper, says the huge financial cost of fighting an unfair dismissal in the UK acts as a powerful deterrent for colleagues left behind.

"People know that whistleblowers do not do well in the NHS. This is a political problem that no minister is prepared to deal with but it is also a cultural problem within the profession. There is a code of silence and so those who do talk about problems are considered aberrant. There is no doubt there is a knock-on effect for all those left behind who get too frightened to stand up and speak out."

Last year, Ramon Niekrash, a surgeon from South London Healthcare NHS trust who was suspended after reporting patient safety breaches at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, before it merged to form a new supertrust, was left with a £180,000 legal bill despite winning his employment tribunal.

A senior surgeon from the trust told The Independent that "things are out of control here, someone needs to do something". Another surgeon said: "After Ramon, there has been a general feeling of fear and most people will not complain or take a stand... the doctors are totally de-motivated."

The trust said there was "no question" of any staff member facing any consequence as a result of raising concerns.

Dr Stephen Bolsin, co-author of the JRSM paper, who exposed high death rates among babies with cardiac problems at Bristol Royal Infirmary in 1995, was forced to move to Australia after being ostracised by the NHS. His case triggered the 1998 Public Interest Disclosure Act, but doctors say it has "not been as effective as anticipated".

John Pugh, chair of the Lib Dem health policy group, welcomed the Health Select Committee inquiry, revealed in The Independent yesterday, and said he would ask the Health Secretary to consider the US model for protecting whistleblowers. "It's time to blow the whistle on whistleblowers and provide them with protection that works," he said.

A Department of Health spokesperson said recent changes made to the NHS contract would help but "there is already strong legal protection for whistleblowers and it is clear that people who have been subject to detriment are able to seek redress".