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Analysis: ‘NHS managers will have greater obligation to protect whistleblowers’

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