The Chief Executive of West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust has resigned following a so-called ‘witch-hunt’ of an anonymous whistleblower in 2019.
Concerns arose when a deceased patient’s husband received an anonymous letter highlighting failings in care during his late wife’s bowel surgery. An inquest subsequently revealed that Mrs Warby had been administered glucose rather than saline during surgery. She sadly passed away just five weeks later.
The Chief Executive then launched an internal investigation to identify the “whistleblower”. This included demanding doctors provided fingerprint and handwriting samples to prove their innocence.
Such practices clearly undermine the duty of candour as well as the protection of whistleblowers, which is necessary to ensure transparency and accountability when things go wrong. The duty of candour highlights how being open and honest with patients if things do not go to plan should be of paramount importance.
The duty of candour guidelines encourage transparency by dictating specific procedures are followed. This includes patient notification, support and an ‘expression of sorrow or regret’.
This honesty goes hand in hand with whistleblowing procedures. According to the NHS’ current 'Freedom to Speak Up' whistleblowing policy, healthcare professionals must raise concerns as and when they arise. This is essential in encouraging a culture of support rather than blame, placing patient safety at the forefront. Nevertheless, the anonymous writer in the Warby case evidently did not feel protected by the current guidelines.
Kashmir Uppal, experienced medical negligence solicitor and partner in the clinical negligence team in our Birmingham office says:
“The duty of candour is there to ensure that there is an open dialogue between hospital staff, patients and patient’s families to ensure that mistakes are quickly identified, and lessons are learnt to prevent future harm. The duty of candour provides reassurance to the patient affected but also protects future patients and helps improve patient safety. The duty of candour can only work if hospital staff feel suitably protected by a whistleblower policy. Sadly that was not the situation in the present case”.