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GP whistleblowers should be given same rights as other workers says expert commission

Existing legislation must be changed to protect GP whistleblowers to the same extent as other workers in the UK, a new report has recommended.

The report, published by the Whistleblowing Commission, calls on the Government to strengthen and clarify legal protection for whistleblowers under the 1998 Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA) and update and broaden the definition of ‘worker’ in the Act to include doctors, student nurses, social workers and health care workers among others.

There is currently ambiguity over whether GPs are covered by the act when they make allegations about colleagues to primary care organisations, and this is the subject of an ongoing employment tribunal.  

The commission, an independent body made up of industry and academic experts, launched a public consultation in March, which received 142 responses from employers, regulators, MPs, campaigning organisations and whistleblowers.

It recommended that the Government should add ‘General Practitioners in the health service, regardless of their contractual arrangement’ to the category of workers protected by the PIDA.  

It follows a landmark case reported in Pulse in which a GP has been given the go-ahead to take her health board to an employment tribunal for failing to protect her from reprisals after she raised concerns about her partner’s prescribing.

Dr Margaret Ferguson, a GP partner in Pembrokeshire, Wales, alleged that the Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board released her name to fellow GP partners at a previous practice after she raised concerns that one of her colleagues had ‘acted wrongly’ in prescribing a strong opiate.

She claimed the board failed in its duty to protect her legal rights as a whistleblower, thereby exposing her to reprisals from her colleagues.

Legal experts said the ongoing tribunal will challenge the orthodoxy that ‘oversight’ primary care organisations have no duty to protect GP partners from reprisals from within their own practice when they make allegations against fellow partners.

A survey of 470 doctors by the Medical Defence Union earlier this year found GPs are more worried about whistleblowing than other doctors, with 25% saying they face barriers to raising a concern, compared with only 14% for all doctors.

Responding to the publication of the Whistleblowing Commission report, Dr Mark Porter, chair of BMA Council, said: ‘While the publication of the commission’s report is welcome the BMA feels that the focus must be on the application of good practice at a local level and the development of greater awareness amongst staff of local policies.’

‘However, the commission’s recommendation that GPs and student healthcare workers, including doctors, be covered by PIDA, is something we feel the Government should take forward, as well as their recommendation against the introduction of financial incentives for whistleblowing.’

’It is vital to empower doctors and to create a supportive culture where they are encouraged to raise concerns and, just as importantly, where they know those concerns will be listened to and acted on.’

The commission also called on the Government to adopt a code of practice that sets out clear standards for organisations across all sectors to enable them to have clear whistleblowing arrangements, which would be taken into account in whistleblowing cases before courts and tribunals.