Feature Whistleblowing

Name and shame

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.b2693 (Published 24 July 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b2693
  1. Jane Cassidy, freelance journalist
  1. 1Hertfordshire
  1. janecassi{at}yahoo.co.uk

    When health workers raise the alarm about standards of care, they can end up feeling as guilty as the organisations they expose, Jane Cassidy reports

    Steve Bolsin is one of the best known whistleblowers in UK medical history. The consultant anaesthetist experienced career damage and professional isolation after raising concerns about death rates in paediatric heart surgery at the Bristol Royal Infirmary in the 1990s.

    Nearly 20 years on, he says he is “a modern day exile from the NHS,” indelibly marked by the process of exposing the problems at the United Bristol Healthcare Trust.1 2 Professor Bolsin wrote his first letter of concern to the then trust chief executive in 1990, five years before the death of Joshua Loveday, the last of 29 babies and toddlers who died after having complex open heart surgery at the hospital. A further four were left brain damaged.

    He says he couldn’t take “another day of knowing that a child was being sacrificed once more on the altar of surgical pride, institutional indifference, and professional impotence.”

    It was five years before he met the makers of a Dispatches documentary broadcast in 1996 that finally led to a public inquiry in 1999. In the interim he approached not only clinical colleagues and senior managers but a host of outside individuals and organisations including MPs, the Department of Health, and the Royal College of Surgeons.

    “It was an isolating and depressing experience. Nobody was doing anything and it was also very time consuming. I spent a lot of time thinking about who I could go to next, what more I could do,” he said.

    Meanwhile his attempts at finding a job elsewhere in the UK proved fruitless. “I didn’t want to stay at Bristol. I was made to feel that I was the problem …

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