Urgently Needed Shift in Attitude to 'Whistleblowing' Is Highlighted as New Allegations of Substandard Care Come to Light

04/10/2013 17:18 BST | Updated 04/12/2013 10:12 GMT

A shift in attitude to 'whistleblowing' in the healthcare sector is urgently needed as yet more allegations of substandard care come to light - this time a spate of alleged cases in the South of England.

The latest allegations of substandard care relate to the work of obstetrician and gynaecologist, Mr Rod Irvine, at hospitals in the South East of England prior to November 2012.

To date, around 2,000 women have been contacted by the South London Healthcare Trust, notifying them that Mr Irvine's work is under review. He has been suspended by the Trust from all clinical work pending the outcome of a formal investigation into his practice and the General Medical Council (GMC) has also imposed conditions on his registration. Mr Irvine performed surgical procedures at the Queen Mary's Hospital, Sidcup, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich and the Princess Royal Hospital in Bromley, as well as at a number of private hospitals around South East London.

Bolt Burdon Kemp is assisting a number of women who believe they have suffered injury due to allegedly substandard treatment provided by Rod Irvine with allegations ranging from unnecessary surgery and removal of organs without explanation to potential 'never events'. Such events are basically inexcusable mistakes, which the NHS has itself said should never happen in a clinical setting, such as the removal of the wrong organ.

The fact that the Trust has suspended Rod Irvine from all clinical work pending the outcome of a formal investigation into his practice is an indication that it is taking this matter very seriously indeed. While it is positive that the Trust has taken the precaution of contacting all of the women potentially affected, it is likely that this news will be extremely worrying and upsetting for a lot of them, especially if they are suffering ongoing problems following surgical procedures carried out by Mr Irvine. It is vital that in these situations, women seek independent legal advice rather than relying on assurances provided by the Trust.

Given the length of time that Rod Irvine was practising in South East London, it is possible, if not probable that fellow professionals at the Trust may have had concerns about his work over the ten-year period leading up to the investigation. In some instances, they may have opted not to alert their employer to these concerns for fear of this negatively impacting on their careers and job security.

Indeed there has always been a deep-rooted fear associated with 'whistleblowing' among healthcare professionals and speaking openly about concerns in patient care. This is largely because of the unacceptable way in which 'whistleblowers' have been treated in the past. The term 'whistleblowing' in itself carries negative connotations when in fact it is a practice that should be actively encouraged. In 1991, Graham Pink, a nurse who worked on a geriatric ward at Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport was sacked for highlighting concerns about understaffing which compromised patient safety.

Earlier this year, in his examination of the quality of care at Stafford Hospital, Robert Francis QC highlighted the need to address what he termed a 'culture of fear' in the NHS and called for a duty of openness and candour. NHS organisations have been told in no uncertain terms that it is not acceptable to suppress complaints or attempt to hide sub-standard practice under the carpet. If this recommendation to introduce a legal duty of candour is realised, this would be a significant step. However, it will only result in real improvements in patient care if there is a major cultural shift in the attitude towards "whistleblowing". This is urgently needed to empower healthcare workers to speak out without fear of recrimination about poor standards of care to employers who will listen to them. It is only by being open and honest about such problems at every level that they can be addressed and resolved and ultimately the standard of care improved.

Caroline Klage is a partner specialising in clinical negligence claims at Bolt Burdon Kemp