A UK hospital has been widely criticised for its “witch-hunt” in an attempt to find out the identity of a whistleblower. The Guardian reports that the whistleblower raised the alarm over patient safety at Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s local hospital because of concerns about the behaviour of a doctor who had been seen injecting himself with drugs. The incident had already prompted internal complaints from senior staff at West Suffolk Hospital, but the whistleblower decided to take matters a step further when the same doctor was later involved in a potentially botched operation.
The whistleblower then wrote to relatives of a dead patient and urged them to ask questions about the conduct of the doctor and his background. When they did this, the hospital launched the attempt to find out the identity of the leaker. The doctor’s drug use, which the trust has never acknowledged until now, helps explain why it demanded fingerprint and handwriting samples from staff – tactics which the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) regulator, the Care Quality Commission, roundly condemned.
Last month Hancock ordered the trust to undergo a rapid review from which he recused himself after failing to act on doctors’ concerns about bullying.
The report says consultants at the trust had already raised the alarm that the doctor’s use of injected drugs could pose a risk to patients by impairing his judgment and coordination. But rather than address the criticism of its handling of the problem, the trust’s management launched an extraordinary hunt to identify the whistleblower.
The Care Quality Commission said the lengths to which the hospital was going to find the whistleblower were “unprecedented and concerning” as it handed out its biggest ever rating downgrade.
The report says when it first revealed the trust’s tactics, managers delivered written apologies “for the stress and upset caused” to all staff involved and said it “no intention of pursuing fingerprint requests further”. Despite this public display of contrition, bosses have since refused to drop disciplinary action against a doctor accused of being the mole on the basis of handwriting samples and his refusal to provide fingerprints.
The report says a spokesperson for the trust refused to discuss the investigation directly but pointed out that it was now subject to the rapid review, being overseen by the Health Minister Edward Argar. She said: “In these complex cases, an independent review with maximum transparency is the right way forward, and we are in support of this approach.”Full report in The Guardian