The Sunday Times-April 20, 2014-Martyn Halle
MINISTERS have been accused of reneging on a promise to protect whistleblowers in the NHS.
Two surgeons who complained about hospital standards have been suspended for a total of seven years after subsequent complaints about them. Their employers insist their suspensions are unrelated to their whistleblowing. The cases have emerged only days after Dr Raj Mattu, a cardiologist, won an employment tribunal case for unfair dismissal following a 12-year battle with University Hospital Coventry.
He was suspended in 2002 and dismissed in 2010 after revealing how two patients had died in dangerously overcrowded bays.
Dr Peter Tomlin, of the Doctor’s Support Group, said: “It is a typical management ploy to label someone who blows the whistle as a bully. We have constantly been promised better protection for whistleblowers and an end to long-term suspensions. But neither has happened.”
Peter O’Keefe, a heart surgeon at the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff, was suspended in April 2012, 19 months after raising concerns about a patient who suffered a serious brain injury after he became disconnected from a ventilator for more than 10 minutes. The patient, from Cwmbran, Gwent, was left in a “vegetative state” as a result.
O’Keefe was accused of bullying junior colleagues and has since been suspended on full pay.
An investigation of the patient’s treatment was launched after O’Keefe’s complaint, and a report, released
more than a year later, identified more than 20 safety failings. O’Keefe is unable to comment but friends said he suspected he had been victimised for speaking out. “There was annoyance on the intensive care unit that he had reported the matter,” one claimed.
Cardiff and Vale University Health Board said: “We absolutely reject the suggestion that the suspension of the surgeon in question is in any way related to any concerns he may have expressed about the care of patients … The process of suspending a consultant is not one that this health board enters into lightly.”
Last year Ann Clwyd, Labour MP for Cynon Valley, complained about the care that her husband received at the hospital before his death.
A report by the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) last year raised concerns about delays to operations on heart patients over the previous five years at the hospital.
Shiban Ahmed, a paediatric surgeon, spoke out about the quality of surgery at Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool in 2009.
He claimed there had been five avoidable deaths at the hospital but was later suspended on mental health grounds when the hospital ruled him to be “suicidal”. Ahmed’s doctors and the British Medical Association reject that assessment.
An internal disciplinary hearing was scheduled for this week, but has been cancelled.
Dr Kim Holt, who founded the pressure group Patients First, has taken up Ahmed’s case and has written to Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, asking him to intervene.
“He [Ahmed] was not at all suicidal but had been raising concerns regarding unsafe surgical practice that placed children at risk,” she said.
“He has endured five years of persistent attempts to discipline or discredit him, periods of suspension and sick leave and has been prevented from continuing in his surgical specialty, which he was very good at and loved.”
The full report on Ahmed’s claims by the RCS has yet to be published.
Alder Hey said Ahmed’s suspension was unconnected to his whistleblowing. It said that his concerns had been taken “very seriously” and the trust had requested an independent RCS review. It added: “The report compiled by the college concluded clinical standards of Alder Hey’s surgical practice were within UK acceptable standards and that Alder Hey’s paediatric surgical service was safe.”
The Department of Health said: “NHS staff who have the courage and integrity to speak out in the interests of patient safety must be protected and listened to. The secretary of state has written to all trusts to remind them of their responsibilities in this important area.”