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Whistle-blow on patient abuse, GPs told

GPs can legally whistle-blow to the media or MPs if they suspect physical and mental abuse of vulnerable adults by carers or NHS staff is being covered up, new BMA guidance states.

Published today, the BMA's Safeguarding Vulnerable Adults Toolkit for GPs says legislation is in place to protect GPs who wish to sound the alarm over fears that vulnerable patients have been victims of abuse or neglect, but they should only do so if they believe a cover-up is likely and once they have informed managers and/or regulators.

The toolkit aims to resolve ‘a lack of clarity' over the issue and support GPs to meet their ‘obligation' to report abuse, the BMA said.

The guidance, which highlights the differences between safeguarding adults and child protection, says GPs should be alert to identifying abusers, spotting ‘systemic healthcare failures' and recognising signs of neglect, ranging from physical and mental abuse to financial exploitation.

It also advises doctors on the channels they can use to raise the alarm over patient safety fears - including raising concerns 'in good faith' with managers, employers or regulators - but should whistle-blow if they suspect a cover-up is likely.

The guidance reads: 'Where these remedies are exhausted, and patients are still at risk, it may be necessary to consider raising the issue more widely-by whistle-blowing, for example, which may involve providing information to the media or MPs.'

'Wider dissemination of information is protected, as long as it is reasonable, not made for gain and meets the following conditions:

  • Whistle-blowers reasonably believe they would be victimised if they raised the matter internally or with a prescribed regulator
  • They believe a cover-up is likely and there is no prescribed regulator
  • They have already raised the matter internally or with a prescribed regulator.'

Earlier this month, a Pulse survey revealed that four in ten doctors have suspicions that an elderly or infirm patient has been abused by their carer. The poll of 290 GPs found that 41% believe one or more of their patients has been subject to abuse.

Launching the guidance, Dr Tony Calland, chair of the BMA's Medical Ethics Committee, said: ‘The way doctors deal with these possible situations demonstrates how complex caring for vulnerable adults can be.'

'There is no "one size fits all" solution and each case needs to be judged individually. This toolkit will help to guide and support doctors in their decision-making.'

Legal experts backed the BMA's move, and said it was a further sign of a ‘cultural change' in the health profession's approach to tackling neglect.

Chris Webb, head of social care at law firm Brown Jacobson, said: ‘For too long GPs have not had clear advice about safeguarding adults.'

'The distinction between health and social care is being increasingly blurred but at the moment social workers and GPs might, understandably, have quite different approaches to safeguarding. The fact that the BMA says this guidance can inform all health professionals, not just GPs, can help bring greater consistency across the board.'

Dr Una Coales, a GP in Stockwell in South London, said new guidance to help GPs protect patients was ‘a positive move'.

Click here to read the full guidance