UK regulators have unveiled plans for the first ever National Health Service whistle-blowing policy to encourage and support those wishing to ring alarm bells over poor quality care, after a line of safety scandals in which patient harm could have been avoided if staff concerns had been listened to and addressed.

Earlier this year, a review of whistle-blowing processes by Sir Robert Francis heard that many healthcare professionals reporting sub-standard care in the NHS faced “a harrowing and isolating process with reprisals including counter allegations, disciplinary action and victimisation”.

“Bullying and oppressive behaviour was mentioned frequently, both as a subject for a concern and as a consequence of speaking up,” Sir Robert said, noting that “while incidents and reports are often handled in accordance with good practice, there is a fear shared by many NHS staff that they will suffer adverse consequences if they raise concerns,” and that “nothing effective will be done”.

In line with his recommendations, Monitor, NHS England and the NHS Trust Development Authority have now drawn up plans detailing who can raise concerns, how they should go about doing so, and how organisations should respond. 

The policy also sets out a commitment to listen to staff, learn lessons from mistakes, and “properly investigate” issues when reported, “to encourage a culture where raising concerns becomes normal practice”, said Tom Grimes, Monitor’s head of enquiries, complaints and whistleblowing.

“Whistleblowers are the smoke alarms of the NHS, and they're vital for patient safety and high-quality care,” Phil Hammond, NHS doctor, broadcaster, journalist and patient safety campaigner, told PharmaTimes. 

“It's been estimated that had the NHS listened to the Bristol heart baby whistleblower Professor Stephen Bolsin, it would have saved £100 million in subsequent legal settlements, GMC hearings and the public inquiry. And hundreds more babies would have been saved from avoidable death and brain damage”. 

'Vilified and hounded'

“Instead, Professor Bolsin was vilified and hounded out of the NHS, a fate that still befalls many whistleblowers today. That's why they need proper legislative protection. We must embed a culture of transparency and accountability in the NHS, and make it safe for anyone – staff, patients and carers alike - to speak up knowing they will be heard”.

Also commenting on the proposals, Mike Durkin, NHS England director of patient safety, said “a safe NHS is an open and honest NHS where we routinely learn from mistakes and use that learning to improve patient safety. If we are to truly put our patients first, we must create a culture where owning up to mistakes and speaking out about poor care is fully encouraged and embraced”.

Rob Webster, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said the policy consultation offers every NHS Board the opportunity to consider how national arrangements on whistle-blowing support their local efforts “to ensure it is always the case that staff feel safe in raising concerns”. 

Members of the public, healthcare staff and NHS organisations can now take part in a consultation on the proposals, which will run for eight weeks.