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Patients First launches at Leigh Day & Co

Patients First, a new group comprising whistle blowers from within the NHS set up to lobby the UK Government to create policies and laws that ensure the NHS becomes more open and accountable launched at an event hosted by Leigh Day & Co

16 December 2011

Patients First, a new group comprising whistle blowers from within the NHS set up to lobby the UK Government to create policies and laws that ensure the NHS becomes more open and accountable launched at an event hosted by Leigh Day & Co last night.

The group, supported by Action against Medical Accidents (AvMA), the charity for patient safety and justice, heard from a variety of speakers who spoke out about the injustices visited upon those within the Health Service who dare to speak out in the interests of patients.

Dr Phil Hammond was the Chairman for the evening. He spoke about the importance of praising whistleblowers and stressed that to make medicine safer, patients, relatives and staff must all be encouraged to raise concerns and managers and the wider NHS must listen and act to prevent avoidable harm. Ethical leadership and a change of culture are needed, and we must not shirk the difficult conversations that must happen to make the NHS open and transparent.

Phil introduced Peter Walsh the Chief Executive of AvMA to open proceedings. Peter stated that it should be made easier for health professionals to raise concerns and that openness with patients, when things go wrong, goes hand in glove with protecting and supporting whistleblowers.

He also spoke of the Government plans for a mere contractual duty of candour, a standard clause in hospitals’ contracts, as 'laughable'. What was needed, he said, was a statutory, enforceable duty of candour with patients and similarly robust requirements to support and protect whistleblowers. He added that patients generally and AvMA in particular stood shoulder to shoulder with whistleblowers and Patients First.

Professor Peter Beresford, a Professor of Social Policy at Brunel University, spoke passionately on the subject of whistle blowing and reaffirming to agreement throughout the room which was full to capacity of doctors, non medical NHS staff, regulators and patients, that it must be possible to speedily and comfortably get out bad news and that whistleblowing should be seen as the court of last resort.

Professor Beresford raised concerns with the direction of the Health Service, stating that new situations and problems will arise from expansion in the use of involuntary mental health admissions, in personalised care with isolated workers and with the overall inadequately trained and supported social care workforce. He warned that as a result things were likely to get worse for whistle blowers.

Professor Peter Dawson, Co-Founder of Patients First shared some thoughts on whistle blowing, stating that Patients First will try to support those who raise concerns within the NHS as well as those who go outside to external organisations in the interests of patients.

He also mentioned that one of the weapons used against whistleblowers is to smear them as incompetent or underperforming. He was extremely candid when he said that everyone makes mistakes and if you look hard enough, something could easily be found on which to base such a smear and so if you hear a doctor is suspended for alleged incompetence, don't rejoice - this may be a diversionary tactic to distract from an issue story the doctor is trying to raise.

After a short break the Doctor who blew the whistle on the inadequacies of the department in which Baby P was failed, Dr Kim Holt told a hushed room of her experiences. How she had been persecuted for whistle blowing having warned 4 years before Baby P’s death of the short comings of the department in which she worked, her personal struggle and final tragic vindication in the wake of Peter Connelly’s death.

Dr Holt explained that she could speak out as she had refused a £120,000 gagging clause and has now been reinstated as a paediatrician under new hospital management at the Whittington Hospital.

She explained that it is still too dangerous for medical and non-medical staff to whistle blow in many NHS trusts despite clear guidance from the Department of Health for members of staff who wish to raise their concerns, to be able to do so with impunity. However, she had been fortunate that her new employer Whittington Health are now managing the case differently and had reinstated her. BMA support had also been crucial in her last years of negotiating her reinstatement.

Richard Stein, Head of Human Rights at Leigh Day & Co then explained the legal action that has been launched on behalf of Patients First against two NHS Trusts, Ealing Hospital NHS Trust and South London Healthcare NHS Trust. Both have been asked to provide a range of evidence in relation to their policies on whistle blowing, including what steps they have taken in the last 12 months to ‘audit, review and refresh’ their approach to whistle blowing, as required by the Department of Health Guidance “Speak Up for a Healthy NHS”.

Mr Stein explained that it wasn’t about money, all the Trust had to do to ‘fight’ the legal action was to come clean and acknowledge what they haven’t done, and then do it.

The question and answer session allowed the 60 attendees to share their experiences, to point to good examples where whistle blowing is actively encouraged and followed up, for example in Brighton, and the meeting ended as it had started with much discussion and a shared and passionate interest in effecting a real culture change in the NHS.


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