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Independents' Day

‘I’d rather quit my job than blow the whistle on GP colleagues again’

A nightmarish experience of whistleblowing on a former colleague showed one GP just how little support the profession gets to call out bad practice

Some years ago I was forced into raising some concerns about a partner with the PCT. The process that followed was brutal, cruel and devastating for all concerned.

Consequences for me personally included financial penalty, massively increased workload and disruption to working relationships within the practice. There was a constant underlying threat that, if I withheld any information, I would be reported to the GMC and my registration put at risk.

But by far the most damaging outcome was terrible psychological distress, panic attacks, feelings of guilt and a deepening depression exacerbated by over a year of constant low-grade bullying by non-medical members of staff who blamed me for what had happened.

Each staff member had their own special tactic, ranging from glares; one-word answers, tutting, and raised eyebrows, to totally ignoring me. Some would turn their back on me when I walked into the room. Others loaded excessive work onto me – I overheard one colleague once tell another: ‘she caused the problem, she can deal with it’.

My medical colleagues preferred not to get involved. When I described to them what was happening to me and the effect it was having, they thought I was being paranoid and over-sensitive. But I understood why staff members were angry with me, and felt terrible that I had caused such upset. My guilt and sympathy for the staff prevented me from confronting them, and destroyed any authority I had previously had as a partner.

During this period, the PCT provided no support at all. At the first meeting with the medical director I expressed my fears about the process. The first reply was ‘Oh, for goodness sake….’ followed by the advice that I should simply discuss it with a mentor.

I did not receive a single phone call from anyone at the PCT to check up on me (though asked me on several occasions for information, audits and patient reviews). Despite telling them how difficult I was finding the atmosphere, no one spoke to them or gave me any help.  At no stage did anyone mention the organisation Public Concern at Work, or any other form of support. I was advised to involve the LMC who offered legal advice, and was given factual information about the process.

I believe people involved in my case felt that supporting me could be seen as showing bias towards me, and that any consequences resulting from the process were the responsibility of the partnership. In the best whistleblowing policies there is an acknowledgement that there is a conflict between supporting both the whistleblower and the investigated doctor. The best way of dealing with this is to appoint a separate named person, independent of the investigating team, to liaise with and support each. This did not happen. 

I struggled with the negative consequences of whistle-blowing for over a year before I asked the local medical director if I could have some counselling. At first I was told that there was no money in the budget available to me; it took several months, a further approach and a new medical director before I was offered funding. However, this funding was for a ‘mentor’, not a counsellor, and the medical director suggested a couple of local GP colleagues for the job. Under the circumstances, I felt this solution wasn’t suitable – the suggested mentors also, sensibly, declined - after which the PCT offered to pay for me to see a qualified counsellor.

With professional help I was slowly able to come to terms with what had happened, and eventually spoke to the staff concerned about how to recover a professional relationship. I wished I had sought support earlier: the counsellor helped me to understand that the bullying was not my fault and that I did not deserve to be punished for whistle-blowing, even if I could sympathise with their anger and upset. The counsellor explained that the experience of bullying after whistleblowing was common and well-documented.

After I went through counselling, I contacted the medical director to request a copy of the local whistleblowing policy. He was unable to produce one, and as recently as last week the policy was still unavailable. A year or so ago I even offered to help write a new one, but no-one at the PCT took me up on my offer.

The CCG has since suggested that whistleblowing policies are now the responsibility of NHS England, rather than the local primary care commissioner.  I sincerely hope that if NHSE is responsible for protecting GPs who raise concerns, it produces a standardised policy that requires CCGs to support and protect whistle-blowers and their families.

If any GP is in a similar position to mine, I would recommend trying to resolve the issue internally if possible, involving the LMC, and speaking to Public Concern at Work if necessary.

But personally, I would never be prepared to repeat my own experience again. If the situation arose where it was necessary, I would leave my job first and then express my concerns anonymously later.

The author still practises as a GP and wished to remain anonymous when writing this case study. The partner who the author raised concerns about is no longer working.

Readers' comments (16)

  • Nothing new here. Similar experiences exist in ALL occupations, and will always do so no matter what systems are put in place, as the behaviour described of closing ranks against a disruptive element is a basic biological reflex of any social group of primates.

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  • Seems more prevalent in island primates though.

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  • Sad to say I was not the whistle blower but a victim of factious allegation by my partner..........there is justice at the end.

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  • Not sure if you asked advice from your Medical Defence Union as well as the GMC/LMC/BMA/GPC/RCGP/IDF or other professional body you belong to? There are multiple organisations supporting doctors during times of stress and provide counselling and professional support - might be best to look them up.

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  • In answer to 10.51

    MPS advice was that I had no choice but to report my concerns or risk my own GMC registration. No other advice was offered.
    GMC and PCT involved in the investigation and did not offer me any support. There was a perceived conflict of interest.
    RCGP- what support, I am unaware that they give individual help, but happy to be corrected.
    LMC were involved and gave us legal/ partnership advice. This was very limited in time and scope.
    I did contact the BMA counselling service who were very sympathetic but could only offer me telephone counselling on the condition that I called them at 10 am on a weekday. As I was working 13 hour days just to keep afloat this was difficult.
    IDF is suitable for private doctors, not NHS.

    What I needed was the same statutory protection from financial loss, bullying and victimisation that an employee has and for my distress to be taken seriously rather than ignored. In some cases this might mean removing a whistleblower from a practice

    To 6.09
    I am sorry to hear you we're the victim of a factious allegation. I am sure the process must have been just as stressful for you and assume that you were cleared in the investigation. I also hope you got more support than I did.

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  • I am very sorry to hear of your experience. I was a whistle-blowing medical student and the organisation turned against me, utterly discrediting me. The BMA helped very much inc Doctors for Doctors but it was a terrible experience. I decided to fight the consequences and that was terrible too.

    I agree with the first comment. The way this was described to me was that the herd of wildebeest turn against the person ie once they start running, there is no turning.

    I know I did the right thing. That doesn't pay bills or feed a pension. It is wholly ironic for me that STJ's (situational judgement tests) are used in the selection of candidates for some specialties, including all F1 posts. Most of these test 'the right thing to do" that invariably is to raise a concern. High scorers are placed in their first choice posts. It is all theory: it takes courage to raise a concern and the risks are immense. Few take it. Can we blame them?

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  • I aked advice from the PCT last year about a salaried GP who was with the practice for many years. I am a practice nurse and was amazed and impressed that even one of our receptionists had expressed concern over the competancy of the salaried GP to the lead partner as I had done. I even gave a list of things concerning me to the junior partner and the practice manager, but you know what?
    They made the salaried GP the lead partner when they both retired!
    I phoned the GMC anonynously to see if I was overreacting on anything and they wanted me to name him but without support I feel impotent. The RCN are not helpful as they have to be seen to be doing the "right" thing and just report them anyway. The other side of the coin is I have 3 adult kids with problems and a large mortage until I am 70 so I cannot risk my job.
    I did help one GP in the past who was obviously struggling from the h/o stroke and was behaving odd at times but rather than report him I managed to get advice from The Sick Doctor's Trust though the issue was not alcohol related.
    I really think we ALL need more support and understanding at work. We are human beings, make mistakes, sometimes behave in a defensive way and I think some kind of neutral internal arbitration/mediation service could provide counselling for those we are concerned about which might result with reducing individuals standing on the hotline?

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  • re anonymous 10.51

    everybody should be clear that the BMA currently does not give any ractical or legal support to GPs in any matters relating to whistleblowing or difficulties with CCG/Health Boards since we are not Employees.
    Staggering but the wording of' My BMA' carefully....
    The MDO's seem to be variable in their support....mine said ' It is not the duty of THIS MDO to support one doctor making allegations against another.
    Going to the LMC for support might work where you are, but local 'cliques', vested interests and closing of ranks may prove impossible in many areas. It also raises questions of confidentiality and fear of being seen as vexatiously discrediting a colleague amongst local peers. The LMC has no authority to investigate or clarify the facts.
    The GMC tells us to come forward but provide no individual support to those that do.

    The RCGP make statements of support for whisteblowers but offer no individual support.

    It is a very lonely and awful position to be in. Most leave rather than face it...[ everyone seems to have a relevant story....].how can we deserve to be trusted by patients whilst this persists?

    THe GMC,BMA,RCGP and Medical Defence Organisations need to sit down together and work out how this can change

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  • Speak to someone who has acted on behalf of the bullied; this is a serious problem.

    The bottom line is this. If practices don't learn to handle this like grown ups, the danger is that a disgruntled whistle blower will gather all the evidence, then submit the evidence to the CQC/GMC/NHS Englad and also sue for every penny the practice has. There is no upper limit to damages in whistle blowing cases.

    I went to a seminar by and they outlined how this is going to affect every practice when ordinary staff learn to leverage their employment claims.

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  • I am sorry you had a terrible time And not surprised. I hope this will improve for ourselves and patients

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