Peter Dawson: As cuts bite, we need to protect those who expose failures

If NHS employees raise concerns, they should not be left at the mercy of defensive managers
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NHS employees should not have to choose between putting patients at risk or putting themselves and their families at risk. Sadly, as things currently stand, I would not advise anyone to put their head above the parapet.

As a senior consultant I have discovered how dangerous it can be to raise sensitive issues within the NHS. Ten years ago when I pointed out within my department at Hammersmith Hospital (and not outside it) that a substantial sum of money had disappeared and that some patients were at risk, I naively expected an investigation. Instead I was charged with "damaging the reputation of the institution".

To my astonishment there was a closing of ranks against me right up to Department of Health level. After much pain, Frank Dobson, then the Secretary of State, stepped in and ordered an inquiry with broad terms of reference, against resistance from civil servants.

This inquiry finally brought a measure of justice and saved my career, but the report was suppressed by Mr Dobson's successor and remains unpublished.

Over the years since, I have been asked to advise a dozen or so doctors in difficulties and have noted that the behaviour of clinical and professional NHS managers is always the same: they break their own institutional codes, natural justice and ACAS guidelines to destroy the individual, and they are willing to spend huge sums of public money on lawyers.

If NHS employees raise concerns, they should not be left at the mercy of defensive managers until such time, perhaps, that they can find justice in law in an industrial court. By that time, even if they win, careers, finances and perhaps families may have been destroyed.

We are dealing here with taxpayer-funded organisations, taxpayer-funded salaries and a substantial public interest.

At a time of shrinking NHS resources we need to solve this problem more than ever.

It is hard to change human nature, so how about a clear announcement that managers, professional or clinical, found to be victimising an employee for raising concerns will themselves be subject to the severest penalties. Whistleblowers need protection from the very start, not at the end of the line when it may be too late for them.

The author is the recent Professor of Medical Imaging at University College Hospitals, London