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.