NHS doctors referred to regulator to ‘intimidate’ whistleblowers, admits GMC

nhs doctors referred to regulator to ‘intimidate’ whistleblowers, admits gmc

Prof Dame Carrie MacEwen said misuse was 'completely unacceptable' - Eye Charity

The doctors’ regulator has admitted that referrals are sometimes being used to “intimidate” whistleblowers.

On Friday, Prof Dame Carrie MacEwen, the General Medical Council (GMC) chairman, acknowledged that the system for assessing doctors’ fitness to practice is being weaponised against those who raise patient safety concerns.

In a statement she wrote: “The GMC is aware that referrals to us are sometimes used to intimidate.”

She added that this misuse is “completely unacceptable, has significant consequences for doctors’ wellbeing, and puts patient safety at risk”.

The admission comes in response to an investigation by this newspaper that exposed a “playbook” of tactics used by NHS managers to silence staff who raise concerns over potentially avoidable patient harm and deaths.

Last week, The Telegraph revealed that vexatious GMC referrals are one of the main retaliatory measures used against whistleblowing doctors.

Twenty-two medics who were inappropriately referred after raising patient safety concerns said the process leaves lasting damage, with some even feeling suicidal.

Doctors told this newspaper that steps taken by their regulator to protect whistleblowers were insufficient, calling for automatic investigations of NHS managers who inappropriately target whistleblowers with referrals.

They have echoed a call from Dr Naru Narayanan, the president of the hospital doctors’ union, who wants a new criminal offence to punish those who harm whistleblowers.

Dame Carrie also noted that the “harrowing” findings from the Infected Blood Inquiry published on last Monday included a “cautionary” warning about the consequences of not encouraging medical professionals to speak up.

“There is extensive commentary within the report about the importance of speaking up about both mistakes and near misses and a cautionary note about the need to protect those who do so from detriment to their career,” she said.

The inquiry, led by Sir Brian Langstaff, found that a failure to encourage whistleblowing in the NHS magnified the harm suffered by those infected with HIV and hepatitis C from contaminated blood products.

Dame Carrie said: “History cannot be repeated. Cultural change must be prioritised as lessons are learned from this dreadful chapter in the history of the health service, so that we as doctors take the actions we need to protect patients.”

She also accepted Sir Brian’s finding that changes made since the 1970s to encourage “speaking up” in the healthcare system have not succeeded. The Telegraph highlighted this failure in its NHS whistleblowing investigation published May 16.

The revelations came from interviews with 52 current and former healthcare professionals, including 47 doctors, who raised concerns about upwards of 170 patient deaths and nearly 700 cases of poor care. Most of the harm occurred after staff first raised concerns.

Although GMC referrals are intended to be used only when there are issues around a doctor’s conduct or capability, 25 medics reported being threatened with referrals to the GMC after whistleblowing.

In 2016 and 2017, Dr Jasna Macanovic, a consultant hepatologist, blew the whistle over a “contraindicated” experimental procedure being carried out at Portsmouth Hospitals.

She told The Telegraph that “instead of investigating my concerns the Trust threatened me with a GMC referral because I was ‘failing to cooperate with my colleagues’.”

In many of the 22 cases where managers followed through on threats and passed their details to the regulator, doctors claim that false or fabricated information was submitted against them.

All doctors have been told they have “no case to answer”.

Mr Peter Duffy, a whistleblower and former consultant urological surgeon awarded an MBE for services to the NHS, was anonymously referred to the GMC seven times, with the regulator always finding he had no case to answer.

He said: “The impact couldn’t have been greater. For a number of months I was a huge suicide risk and ultimately [the seventh] referral to the GMC was responsible for my decision to quickly terminate my own career years earlier than planned, in order to prevent further malicious reporting.”

Dame Carrie wrote that “safeguards” were in place “to help make sure that the referrals that come to us are fair, appropriate, and proportionate”.

“We are continuously assessing how these are working and whether further interventions are needed to prevent retaliatory or weaponised referrals,” she added.

The GMC’s main “safeguard” against malicious referrals is simply to ask the referring Trust to tick a box if the doctor in question is a whistleblower.

But 14 whistleblowing doctors told The Telegraph that their employers simply failed to tick the box.

Mr Tristan Reuser, a consultant ophthalmic surgeon, blew the whistle at University Hospitals Birmingham in Jan 2017, but when Dr David Rosser, the then medical director, referred him to the GMC, he omitted crucial information.

Dr Rosser is one of the few NHS managers penalised for misusing the GMC referral system, receiving a warning in July 2021 for bringing the profession “into disrepute”.

Charlie Massey, GMC’s chief executive, told The Telegraph: “We are very clear that our fitness to practise processes must not be weaponised as a mechanism to deter, intimidate or punish whistleblowers.

“It’s wholly unacceptable that some doctors do not receive adequate support from their employers when raising concerns, and a system wide approach is needed to address the culture within healthcare so that all doctors and their colleagues feel confident to speak up without fear of reprisal.”

He added that the GMC supports doctors raising concerns through a confidential helpline and a specialist service created with the charity Victim Support.

Portsmouth Hospitals and University Hospitals Birmingham have apologised for errors made and stated that patient safety remains their top priority.

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