Sheena Pinion: Fife cancer doctor ‘bullied out of job’ says whistleblowing cost her her career

The Herald 3 February 2019
Exclusive by Helen McArdleHealth Correspondent
Dr Sheena Pinion at her home in KirkcaldyDr Sheena Pinion at her home in Kirkcaldy
A DOCTOR who claims she was bullied out of her job for whistleblowing has spoken of her despair that she “will never work again” in NHS Scotland, despite winning her unfair dismissal case.

Dr Sheena Pinion, 60, said she believes she has been “blacklisted” since taking NHS Fife to an employment tribunal and has now abandoned hopes of returning to frontline hospital care.

Dr Pinion, who specialises in gynaecological cancers, said she wanted to speak out about her own experience ahead of a preliminary report by QC John Sturrock into claims of a “bullying culture” at NHS Highland, which is expected in mid-February.

Dr Pinion said: “I’ve been watching what’s happening in NHS Highland with great interest. The problem is no one dares speak out because what happens is they then get attacked more.”

She added: “I’m not the only one this has happened to. They keep you isolated. You’re not allowed to contact anyone. People were told not to contact me. My whole life was destroyed.

“I was a single female with no children, work was my whole life. And they took all that away from me. And that’s happening to people all over. I just hope the report into NHS Highland isn’t a whitewash – that’s my fear.

“I’m basically at the end of the road with everything and I know I can never work again. I’ve got nothing to lose.”

Read more: Why NHS bullying poses a serious threat to patient care 

Dr Pinion, who lives in Kirkcaldy, qualified in Edinburgh in 1981 and began working as a senior consultant in NHS Fife in 1994.

For the first 10 years it was a “great place to work”, but she believes she became a target for senior managers after voicing concerns about patient safety following a reorganisation of surgical services.

In 2004, she was signed off sick with stress amid an investigation into claims – eventually quashed as false – that she was a bully.

Shortly afterwards, she put in an official complaint after her then line manager refused to engage with her to draw up a job plan, which was necessary for her to renew her contract, return from sick leave and receive back pay.

When she lodged an official complaint, she says she became the victim of a witch-hunt by senior directors who “made my life absolute hell”.

In 2005, she was forced out on gardening leave pending an investigation into allegations that she was putting patients at risk, but again these claims were dropped and a disciplinary panel also found that her manager had “mishandled” her return from sick leave.

Dr Pinion eventually returned to work at NHS Fife in June 2006, but her ordeal was to begin again in 2008 when a colleague – known only as Dr X – revealed that he had contracted a blood-borne virus, later found to be HIV.

Read more: Aberdeen junior doctor cleared over allegations he asked mentally ill patient for sex

NHS Fife subsequently recalled a number of patients Dr X had operated on to test them for the infection. Although the results were negative, Dr X was told to stop carrying out procedures which could put patients at risk of exposure.

In 2010, Dr Pinion made a formal ‘protected disclosure’ to NHS Fife that Dr X was still carrying out operations that potentially endangered patients to the virus. She said this was leaked to Dr X within 24 hours.

“The attacks started immediately,” she said. “Disciplinary actions were raised against me for absolutely anything. Dr X even kept a diary on me, and anytime he heard anyone say anything about me he would escalate it into a disciplinary procedure. Even the most trivial things.”

In January 2012, she also raised concerns over the safety implications of moving obstetrics and gynaecology to the new wing of the Victoria Hospital, without a colposcopy service – a diagnostic procedure to check the cervix for cancer. On January 20, she was suspended “without warning”.

She was just 53, but it was the last time she would work in the NHS.

The reasons for her suspension included claims she had spoken over a colleague during a video conference and breached the dress code by wearing a white coat for clinical care, as well as fresh allegations that she herself was a bully.

The internal probe and Dr Pinion’s subsequent appeal against its findings dragged on for four years, during when time she continued to be paid her full salary – amounting to a total of more than £500,000. In December 2015, she was dismissed.

A subsequent employment tribunal eventually ruled in 2017 that claims of “gross misconduct” were unfounded and that NHS Fife had unfairly dismissed her. NHS Fife spent £160,000 fighting the case.

However, while the tribunal recognised that she was a whistleblower, both in relation to the colposcopy service and Dr X, it rejected her claim that she had been sacked directly because of her whistleblowing.

The potential windfall for claimants who can prove a link between whistleblowing and unfair dismissal is uncapped, but for unfair dismissal alone the maximum is £90,000 before tax.

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