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Scottish health secretary orders independent inquiry into bullying culture at NHS Highland

BMJ 2018; 363 doi: (Published 09 November 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;363:k4778
  1. Gareth Iacobucci
  1. The BMJ

The Scottish government has ordered an independent inquiry into alleged bullying at NHS Highland after doctors blew the whistle on what they described as a “culture of fear and intimidation” at the health board for the past decade.

Scottish health secretary Jeane Freeman said an independent external investigation would take place following the allegations that surfaced in September 2018 when a group of clinicians including Inverness GP Iain Kennedy wrote to The Herald newspaper1 warning that “bullying” and “intimidation” of whistleblowers was rife at NHS Highland and was harming staff and patient care.1

Around 120 staff including managers, GPs, consultants, and support staff have come forward with accounts of being bullied. Kennedy told The BMJ that he had personally spoken to 60 to 70 staff, including some who had experienced severe mental health problems as a result of bullying.

“We think it’s been kept quiet over the years because each victim has felt isolated and terrified of speaking up,” he said. “We believed that we had an ethical and moral duty to whistleblow.”

Kennedy said that a meeting on 5 November between whistleblowing clinicians, the GMB union, NHS Scotland chief executive Paul Gray, and other officials had been constructive.

“We felt that we were actively listened to, our concerns were reflected back to us,” said Kennedy. “Now that it’s been announced that there will be an inquiry we are very confident that this will be tackled. The genie is out of the bottle.”

The Scottish government had already agreed in September to provide external support to NHS Highland to manage the fallout from the allegations and has now committed to establish an independent external investigation into the matters raised.

A Scottish government spokesperson said: “The welfare of NHS staff is paramount, and any claims of bullying in the workplace must be treated with the utmost seriousness. This meeting (on 4 November) was helpful, and provided useful input to the final form and scope that the independent external investigation will take.”

David Alston, chair of NHS Highland, said, “Since the allegations were brought to the attention of the board, despite significant effort, we have been unable to fully understand the nature, extent, and causes of the concerns being raised. What is clear, however, is there are a growing number of staff feeling distressed and concerned about their working environment.

“The board has said all along that we have nothing to hide and, therefore, in order to understand and tackle the underlying problems, we would welcome external input to determine what is required.”


  • Correction: The meeting mentioned in the fifth paragraph took place on 5 November, not 4 November as originally stated.


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