Whistleblower action 'stain on NHS'
The "inexcusable" treatment of whistleblowers who suffer financial or professional damage is a "stain on the reputation of the NHS", MPs have said.
In a report on complaints procedures, the Commons Health Select Committee said medical professionals are deterred from coming forward to raise serious concerns about patient safety because they fear the personal consequences.
The report said evidence heard by the committee suggested NHS staff and patients who complain are not seeking payouts but better quality care.
It added that the public are also faced with a complex, defensive and sometimes rude system when making complaints about the care they have received.
The report urges all sectors of the NHS to adopt a "positive" complaints system, including publishing how complaints have been dealt with, which it believes will give staff and the public the confidence to come forward.
But Conservative MP Dr Sarah Wollaston, chairwoman of the committee, said despite the treatment of some whistleblowers, medical staff had an overriding duty to come forward with fears.
"I would say that you have a responsibility as a professional always to put your patients first - that's unequivocal," she said.
"Even if that might cause harm to your professional career your primary duty is to your patients.
"Most people who do raise concerns will not suffer harm and I think that's a very important message.
"Not everybody in the NHS suffers harm as a result but there has been undoubtedly a number of high-profile cases where that has happened.
"We found there is still evidence that those professionals thinking of raising concerns, the fear of how that might impact on their career is still acting as a deterrent in coming forward and we feel the system needs to continue to change the culture in how it operates so that shouldn't even be a consideration for any professionals.
"If we're going to move on and encourage professionals to feel confident to come forward they need to be sensitive in how they handle complaints."
She added that whistleblowers who have been vindicated should receive "practical redress" for any harm they have suffered as a result.
The report also recommended the Government implement a single, easily identifiable gateway that would point the public towards who they should complain to, rather than being faced by a range of different bodies to contact.
The committee heard how in some cases complaints made in south-west England were being directed to a call centre in Leeds but handled in London.
Dr Wollaston added that she welcomed the progress made by the NHS in creating an open and honest complaints culture but said there was more room for improvement.
Niall Dickson, chief executive of the General Medical Council, said the council was aware that raising concerns can "be a daunting prospect for doctors", adding: "This is an issue we are determined to address, and we have commissioned an independent review of how we deal with doctors who raise concerns in the public interest and what more we can do to support those who do speak up."
Mr Dickson said: "Complaints give the health service a chance to reflect and improve the care that patients receive. However we know that making a complaint about poor treatment can be difficult and patients can be passed from pillar to post.
"This increases the time it takes to resolve a complaint and serves no one."
Rob Webster, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: "Having an effective complaints procedure is an important part of offering high-quality, safe healthcare.
"We provided evidence to this inquiry highlighting that an NHS complaints systems needs to have a simple golden thread, where the patients and their families always receive an apology, an explanation and a clear description of the lessons that have been learned as a result.
"The NHS Confederation has long argued that patients must easily know where they need to go and who they need to talk to if they wish to raise a concern.
"The committee's call for a single complaints gateway for all NHS providers is a recommendation we certainly welcome to help make the process clearer and more effective. This will need to be delivered in ways which also allow rapid response and resolution of complaints."
Peter Carter, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: "Each and every patient complaint is a valuable opportunity for the NHS to review its service and to improve standards of care.
"When things do go wrong, patients must have the confidence that their feedback will be listened to. It's essential for all NHS organisations to demonstrate to their staff and patients that feedback is acted on and used to drive forward service improvement.
"Our members often say that there is a lack of information about how they are supposed to deal with patient complaints. These complaints can be highly sensitive, and made during a vulnerable time for patients and their families, so it's important that all staff are given the right information and training to handle them appropriately."
Dr Carter said it was "crucial" that NHS staff who raised concerns were properly supported.
"Health workers have a duty to put their patients first and to share their worries about patient safety," he said.
"Through encouraging openness and transparency in the NHS, patients and staff alike will be better assured that their concerns are taken seriously and can help promote the highest quality of care in our health service."
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt acknowledged that listening to patients and staff was essential in improving care and said the Government was determined to make the NHS the safest healthcare system in the world.
"That's why we've made hospitals legally obliged to apologise to patients when mistakes do happen, introduced complaints handling as a crucial element of tougher hospital inspections and have asked Sir Robert Francis to produce an independent report on how to create a more open NHS culture," he said.