Should Nurses Blow the Whistle or Just Keep Quiet?

Carolyn Buppert, MSN, JD


June 24, 2014

In This Article

Blowing the Whistle, Fighting the System

The following story is an example of a case in Texas where nurses were very concerned about the care being provided by a physician at their hospital, did something about it, and suffered as a result.

Two nurses, one of whom was the hospital's compliance officer, reported a hospital physician to the state medical board, citing patient safety issues. The problems, according to the source listed below, included the following: (1) The physician was taking patients with serious diagnoses off their medications and instead recommending herbal remedies, for which he was the vendor; (2) the physician was performing surgery, including a skin graft, in the emergency department, even though he wasn't a surgeon; and (3) the physician almost never read patient charts nor ordered diagnostic testing, preferring instead to diagnose on the basis of history alone.

The nurses who reported him essentially were relaying the observations and complaints of many nurses. The nurses filed an anonymous report with the medical board. Once the medical board contacted the physician, the physician enlisted his friend, the sheriff, to do some digging, and the sheriff found out who had filed the complaint against the physician. The physician then filed a complaint, with the sheriff, against the nurses, for harassment. The sheriff arrested the nurses, and the local prosecutor charged them with "misuse of official information," a felony punishable by 10 years in prison. (They had accessed patient charts to describe, specifically, the threats to patient safety.)

The prosecutor had a few conflicts of interest. He was not only the doctor's personal attorney, but also the personal attorney for the sheriff and the hospital's counsel. The physician convinced the hospital to fire the nurses. Eventually the case went to trial against one of the nurses, and she was found not guilty. Charges against the other nurse were dropped before her trial, for reasons unspecified. As of 1 year later, the physician still was working at the hospital.

Much later, the sheriff, the hospital administrator, and the prosecutor all were prosecuted for misuse of official information (the same charge that had been applied to the nurses), and all were found or pleaded guilty. The nurses sued the hospital and received a settlement. Eventually, the physician too was charged with misuse of official information and retaliation. He pleaded guilty. The full story can be heard on the radio program Old Boys Network, which originally aired on June 3, 2011. A transcript is also available.

The nurses in this case were vindicated, but both went through several years of extreme stress, joblessness, and legal fees. Reportedly, neither wants to be a nurse any longer.


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