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Analysis: 'NHS managers will have greater obligation to protect whistleblowers'

Sarah Evans, a specialist employment lawyer, analyses how a recent ruling defines the obligations held by NHS managers when protecting GPs who blow the whistle on their colleagues

If you just look at the outcome, it would suggest it is unwise for GPs to blow the whistle. However, there are many layers to the case and the judgment is quite sympathetic to the complainant.

Having said that, what happened in this doctor’s experience was not that unpredictable, certainly in terms of the breakdown in relationships within the practice.

And what it echoes – based on my experience with consultants and hospital doctors who are whistleblowers  –  is that while the law may be correct, we don’t live in a tribunal, we live and work with people who behave in natural and sometimes confusing ways.

In practice, doctors who decide to raise concerns about a colleague will often have a palpable fear of being labelled a whistleblower. GPs will need to be carefully supported because there is such potential to severely disrupt practice relationships, which can ultimately lead to partnerships being dissolved.

The judgment also reflects other experience suggesting whistleblowing cases involving GPs and other medical doctors are not the same as those in other arenas, in particular because there can be differences in medical opinion.

So although the judgment does not have any implications for a change in the law, it highlights some important practical implications and perhaps health boards and CCGs will need to reassess how they handle such cases.

In particular, with the new law applying to disclosures made after 25 June 2013, they will have a greater obligation to actively take reasonable steps to prevent reprisals (victimisation) against a whistleblower.

The result is that health boards and CCGs, as any other ‘employer’, will have to actually implement whistleblowing policies that before now may simply have gathered dust on shelves and padded out employee handbooks.  Now, they must more rigorously and actively take care to protect whistleblowers – and they will have to take all reasonable steps to do so to avoid vicarious liability for reprisals.

Sarah Evans is a solicitor in employment law specialising in whistleblowing at Slater & Gordon UK 

Readers' comments (5)

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  • The dilemma of being a GP in the UK,
    Picture 2 cases of GPs.
    1) A GP forced by the cost-cutting NHS PCT to prescribe cheaper Sulphonylureas as second line treatment in Diabetes Mellitus, His patient drops his blood sugar detected by Traffic officers to 2.2mmol/litre. His GP because of cost-cutting could not provide him Blood Sugar testing strips.
    He GP is hauled before GMC for allowing is patient to meet with an accident and is struck off the GMC List
    2) A conscientious GP REFUSES TO PRESCRIBE Sulphonylureas as second line treatment. His PCT trumps up charges against him and hauls him before GMC.GMCFTPP releases GP places him back on GP List. The PCT trumps up other charges steps up impractical unproven goals and sends him before GMC. The demoralised conscientious GP suffers physically and mentally from this torture. His defence bodies refuse to continue their indemnity. The GMC takes PCCT’s claims seriously, ignoring Public health issues involved which the GP brings up. This GP is also struck off

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  • The Francis report is a travesty. Hard working staff had a 5* hospital in 1997. The managers cut frontline staff in the hundreds over 6 years, while manager numbers went up.
    As a direct result of inadequate number of staff, patients suffered and died.
    Enter Francis. Instead of just replacing the staff and regaining 5* status, he 300 or is it 3000 new recommendations, a NEW culture of [ so the staff in 1997 did not car!!!] and candour.
    It was pointed out by 64 separate doctors and nurses that cutting essential staff only make patients suffer.
    They are going to cut another 20 billion from the Health service,
    Candidly, who do you think will suffer? And guess who is likely to get the blame?

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  • 3) A third scenario is an NHS accommodating GP prescribes Hypoglycaemia inducing Sulphonylureas and his patient dies of it. The death is labelled as a Prinzmetal Variant MI GP has got off scot free and will live with his biting conscience for the rest of his life.
    This makes life of a GP in the UK impossible

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  • To anonymous private GP, Firstly PCTs don't exist any more, we are now CCGs. Secondly, any prescribing suggestions the medicines management teams make are just that, suggestions, the GP is totally free to not take our suggestions on board, there is no 'force' invloved. We would never stop prescribing of test strips for pts at risk of hypos, nor would or could we 'haul the GP up against the GMC' for this. Try and get your facts straight first next time!

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