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Bullying in NHS Highland: five minutes with . . . Iain Kennedy

BMJ 2019; 365 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l2277 (Published 20 May 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;365:l2277
  1. Abi Rimmer
  1. The BMJ

The Inverness GP talks to Abi Rimmer about blowing the whistle about bullying in NHS Highland

“I was a board member at NHS Highland between 2011 and 2014 and during that time I saw what I thought were clear examples of a bullying culture. In 2017 I found out that I was one of a group of five senior people who had also been victims of bullying. We met up and shared our stories and went from feeling isolated to feeling like there was a common problem.

“Eventually a number of us decided that enough was enough and we needed to act. We wanted to protect others and we were concerned that bullying would occur elsewhere.

“In August last year I stated at a GP meeting that I believed there was a bullying culture in NHS Highland which had existed for at least a decade. I said that while many people knew about it, nothing had been done.

“As a result, the matter was going to be taken to NHS Highland’s board to be discussed. We learnt, however, that the problem was going to be discussed in a different session, the day before the board meeting, instead. So that night we blew the whistle. We sent a statement to the Herald, with the help of BMA Scotland.

“After, all of us had some kind of psychological reaction. I developed some anxiety symptoms, sleeping problems, hypervigilance, and was fearful at times. But, at the same time, I was immensely proud of what we had done.

“As a result of our statement there was an eight week media campaign during which we called for an independent review of NHS Highland. We met with government, they agreed, and the review—conducted by John Sturrock—was commissioned.1

“We are pleased with the report because we believe it confirms what we were saying all along—that there has been a serious problem in NHS Highland with many people feeling bullied. The report is comprehensive, detailed, and damning.

“I have no regrets about what we did and I would do it again. If somebody asked me if they should whistleblow I would say to them, ‘Yes, as long as you are prepared for the consequences.’

“You have to be courageous and prepared to risk your reputation and your career, but if you believe it is the right thing you should do it. One of the things that has kept me going is that when I retire I want to look back and think, ‘I did the right thing, I spoke up, I wasn’t a bystander.’

“It’s been a tough experience and it will continue to be tough. Things will never be the same at NHS Highland. People will also be angry at me and my colleagues for speaking out and we have apologised to clinicians who didn’t think we were speaking on behalf of them.

“We now want an apology from the board at NHS Highland to each and every one those who were bullied. That apology must acknowledge that bullying happened and people suffered harm.

“We want people who were bullied to have the opportunity for psychological assessment and treatment. We’ve also asked the chairman and chief executive of NHS Highland to put out a clear message that whistleblowers must not be adversely targeted.

“In his report, Sturrock says we need to move from fear to safety, from anger to compassion, from blame to kindness, and from shame to dignity. Fear and shame are the two big emotions that I have heard from victims and it’s these two emotions that we need to resolve.”

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