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Clinical Negligence Solicitor Paul Sankey on NHS whistleblowers and the culture of secrecy

Since the Staffordshire Hospitals Inquiry a succession of stories have hit the press where whistleblowers claim to have been victimised and dismissed for raising concerns about poor medical practice in their hospitals. Gary Walker is reported to have been ‘gagged’ when he left United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust. Dr Raj Mattu, a senior surgeon, claims to have been suspended and then dismissed when he raised concerns about cost cutting practices and high death rates at United Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust.
 
So are these isolated incidents or does it reflect a culture of secrecy in the NHS? A website used by doctors ‘Doctors.net.uk’ asked physicians as to whether they had ‘seen any evidence that your trust/employer is encouraging staff to report incidents of poor care since the incidents at mid-Staffordshire?'. Of 230 responses just 3 GPs said ‘yes’.
 
There is plenty of evidence to suggest a culture of secrecy in many NHS Trusts which discourages reporting and investigating medical errors. Not only are patients entitled to know when doctors have made mistakes but without learning from what goes wrong, the same mistakes will happen again. Patient bodies, such as Action against Medical Accidents (AvMA), have been campaigning for years for hospital staff to have a legal duty of candour to inform patients of mistakes. The government has paid lip service by introducing a clause in contracts between Trusts and service providers requiring candour but this will not help patients.
 
In the meantime medical errors can cause enormous harm as we have seen from other recent stories such as the death of a Colchester patient who died after incorrect medication damaged her liver in a case of admitted Medical Negligence. A culture of secrecy might be thought to benefit a hospital’s reputation but it does nothing for the quality of care. Trusts would do better to spend their money investigating errors and improving care than gagging their doctors.

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