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21.01.15

Treatment of whistleblowers ‘remains a stain’ on NHS, say MPs

The treatment of whistleblowers “remains a stain on the reputation of the NHS” and has led to “unwarranted and inexcusable pain” for a number of people, MPs have said.

A report from the Health Select Committee on complaints and raising concerns found that the treatment of whistleblowers has not only caused them direct harm but has also deterred others from coming forward – with ongoing implications for patient safety.

It calls for vindicated whistleblowers to be identified and receive an apology and “practical redress”.

There are many recent cases of NHS whistleblowers being victimised after raising concerns. Many have lost jobs or been referred to professional regulators by their employer after speaking out about patient safety.

Dr Kim Holt, the paediatrician who raised concerns about care at the hospital that treated Baby P, who went on to lead whistleblower support group Patients First, told the Independent that the report was “an acknowledgment that too many people have suffered and the system hasn’t worked”.

Rob Webster, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “We note the Committee’s comments on the experience of some whistleblowers in the NHS and how this is at odds with improvements in culture and confidence elsewhere.  We support the calls for practical redress for those who have been harmed as a consequence of raising genuine concerns. We should apply the same golden thread of complaints handling to staff who have been failed. We also look forward to the Francis report and its findings following detailed scrutiny in this area.”

The report goes on to makes a case for integrating complaints about health and social care under the same umbrella, saying this should start with a single rather than separate ombudsmen.

The committee also calls for the NHS to move to a culture that “welcomes” complaints as a way of improving NHS services. It says the number of complaints about a provider should not necessarily indicate failure, but rather show a service has developed a positive culture of complaint handling.

However complaints handling itself was found to still be too complex and the committee has recommend a “single gateway” for raising complaints and concerns with clearer arrangements for advocacy and support.

The report also stressed that removal of primary care complaints handling from local areas has resulted in a “disconnection from local knowledge and learning” and led to unacceptable delays.

Chair of the committee, Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, said: "There can be no excuse for not implementing a complaints service which is easy to use and responsive to patients and their families but sadly the situation remains variable. We welcome the progress to date but make recommendations for further work in this area. In particular we recommend a single, easily identified gateway for complainants which can then make sure their complaint is handled by the most appropriate organisation. In the case of primary care for example, we do not feel that complaints should be investigated in an entirely different part of the country or plagued by delays.

“Patients and staff do not complain for financial redress but because they seek an acknowledgment and explanation, a timely apology if appropriate and for the NHS to reduce the chance of avoidable harm to others. They and the NHS deserve our support to make sure that this can happen."

Responding to the report the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said that he wants to make the NHS the safest healthcare system in the world, acknowledging that listening to patients and staff is vital.

“That’s why we’ve made hospitals legally obliged to apologise to patients when mistakes do happen, introduced complaints handling as a crucial element of tougher hospital inspections and have asked Sir Robert Francis to produce an independent report on how to create a more open NHS culture,” he said.

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