Whistleblower 'Witch Hunt' Hospital Told to Make Improvements 

Peter Russell

January 30, 2020

A hospital trust which asked staff to provide fingerprints in its quest to identify a whistleblower was graded as 'requiring improvement' following an inspection.

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) said West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust's track record on effectiveness and caring was 'good', but 'requires improvement' for being responsive, well-led, and safe.

The Trust was previously rated as outstanding following an inspection in December 2017. However, the latest report said it had since been downgraded for its leadership.

Whistleblower 'Exposed' Errors in Surgery

The Trust found itself at the centre of controversy when a widower was sent a whistleblowing letter alleging there had been surgical errors leading up to his wife's death during surgery for a perforated bowel at West Suffolk hospital in 2018.

Jon Warby's wife Susan died at West Suffolk Hospital on 30th August 2018.

The Guardian newspaper reported that the anonymous letter prompted a "witch-hunt" by trust managers who sought to identify the staff member behind the letter. It said the hospital had spent more than £2500 on handwriting and fingerprint experts after demanding samples from staff.

The report prompted the Doctors' Association UK to accuse the Trust of "a deep-seated toxic culture" which had sanctioned "bullying and intimidation of senior doctors" in order to "silence whistleblowers concerned about patient safety".

In its latest report, the CQC rated the Trust overall as 'good' for being effective and caring, and 'requires improvement' for being responsive, well-led, and safe.

Of the Trust's individual service ratings, 42 were rated 'good' or 'outstanding', 11 were rated as 'requires improvement', and one was rated as 'inadequate'.

Inspectors noted problems with the hospital's maternity services where they "raised concern over the skills and abilities of leaders to run the service".

Concerns Over the Trust's Culture of Openness

Other trust-wide concerns raised were that:

  • Not all staff felt respected, supported and valued, or felt that they could raise concerns without fear

  • Communication and collaboration to seek solutions had not always been effectively undertaken

  • An open culture was not always demonstrated

  • The style of executive leadership did not represent or demonstrate an open and empowering culture

The CQC made seven visits during September and October 2019 when they spoke to 70 patients and 237 staff, and reviewed 135 patient records.

Prof Ted Baker, chief inspector of hospitals, said: "We had particular concerns about the assessment of risk to mothers and babies in maternity services and have issued a warning notice meaning that improvements must be made by the end of this month.

"We also found that the style of executive leadership did not demonstrate an open and empowering culture.

"There was an evident disconnect between the executive team and some consultants."

'We Are Clearly Disappointed'

Dr Stephen Dunn, the Trust's chief executive, said: "We are clearly disappointed, as this is not the standard that our patients and community deserve.

"We must continue to quickly and effectively fix the issues raised in this report."

The Trust said it acknowledged several areas where changes were required, including staff not being able to raise concerns.

Sheila Childerhouse, the Trust's chair, said: "Although inspectors reflected that we 'promoted an open culture' and had 'visible and approachable' leaders, it is clear that in some areas our staff are not feeling as supported as they should be.

"We appreciate and value our staff and know their knowledge and expertise will be at the heart of addressing some of the problems the CQC has identified.

"We will be reviewing our culture and openness to make sure there is an environment where everyone – including our patients, our staff and our commissioners – has an opportunity to contribute and play a full part in our improvement."

A spokesperson for the Doctors' Association UK said: "We are pleased that the CQC has highlighted the protection of whistleblowers as a top priority when showing real leadership.

"Staff need to feel confident that when they raise concerns about patient safety they will be listened to in a genuine way and not bullied or harassed. We need a culture of learning, not of blame and persecution.

"We hope that West Suffolk can move on from recent events and continue to serve the local population in an improved atmosphere of trust and respect."

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