UK doctors urged to whistleblow

BMJ 1997; 314 doi: (Published 07 June 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:1641
  1. Colleen Shannon
  1. London

    Britain's Department of Health has urged doctors and nurses to speak out when they believe a colleague's behaviour could be endangering patients.

    The call follows an inquiry into the case of Amanda Jenkinson, a nurse who was sentenced to five years in prison for causing grievous bodily harm to a patient in the intensive care unit at Bassetlaw Hospital, Nottinghamshire. Her appeal is pending.


    More doctors would report colleagues if guidelines existed


    “It is essential that doctors and nurses take action if they know, or have good reason to suspect, that a colleague's conduct, health, or general performance may place patients at risk,” said health minister Baroness Jay.

    The inquiry, led by solicitor Richard Bullock, said that healthcare professionals were reluctant to speak out against colleagues. His report says that a “blame free culture” and clear reporting guidelines would make NHS whistleblowers more likely to come forward.

    Dr Howard Vaile, chairman of the BMA's occupational health committee and one of the witnesses who spoke to the inquiry, commented: “It is difficult. If you implicate a doctor's ability you interfere with his livelihood, and that is a very serious thing to do. You have to be sure about your facts. But we do have the obligation not to conceal the fact that a colleague or fellow doctor is in health trouble if we believe that it is likely to affect patients.”

    The Royal College of Nursing agreed that the safety of patients should be paramount and called on managers to listen to staff concerns and to handle inquires with sensitivity.

    The report says that the General Medical Council and the nurses' United Kingdom Central Council should place more emphasis on whistleblowing in their professional codes of conduct.

    The inquiry also recommended improvements in NHS recruitment procedures, including a probationary period, a standardised system for references, and a permanent occupational health record.

    The BMA welcomed the report but opposed the recommendation that an employee's GP should verify the record. The BMA said that this arrangement would damage the relationship between doctor and patient and fail to protect the public.

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