An NHS Scotland whistleblowing helpline has been subjected to criticism after the number of calls that it received declined considerably.
A new report suggests that calls being fielded by the helpline has plummeted by 75% since it was initially created just two years ago.
Critics suggest that it is ultimately utterly toothless, and can be considered little more than a token effort to address any whistleblowing issues.
Public Concern at Work (PCaW), an independent charity, has been paid over £50,000 to run the alert line for NHS Scotland since April 2014.
But only 18 whistleblowers actually called the helpline between July 2015 and January 2016.
Meanwhile, an NHS staff survey suggested that nearly one-quarter of employees believe it would be unsafe for their career to challenge “quality, negligence or wrongdoing” by staff.
And NHS Scotland’s chief executive, Paul Gray, has already conceded that staff fear being victimised for outlining wrongdoing in the NHS.
Dr Jane Hamilton, a campaigner and consultant perinatal psychiatrist, believes that an independent service must be set up instead.
“The bottom line is if it’s not independent and it has no powers, no statutory powers to investigate, then how can it be of any use at all?”
Meanwhile, Cathy James, chief executive of Public Concern at Work, defended the efforts of the hotline to field whistleblowing enquiries and information.
“PCaW run a free legal advice service for any worker in the UK who has witnessed malpractice and is unsure what to do. The service commissioned by NHS Scotland is substantially different to the one suggested by the petitioner. We believe that an investigatory service aimed at whistleblowing cases across the NHS could make a real difference to the experience of those raising concerns in the health sector, but this is not the service we provide to NHS Scotland or in any event.”
But James also acknowledged that the service has experienced problems.
“Raising concerns in any sector can present real challenges and far too often those who speak truth to power suffer as a result.”
Nonetheless, James was adamant that PcaW were providing a valuable service.
“Our service receives outstanding feedback from those who use it and it is incredibly valuable to have access to truly independent advice, but we cannot remove the risk of a negative response entirely – the real power here lies with the health boards and the regulators. As a society we must do more to celebrate and champion whsitleblowing rather than allow the suffering to continue. There is much work to do.”
Scottish Health Secretary Shona Robison also defended the hotline, but noted that the fears staff have expressed regarding whistleblowing should be taken seriously.
“All staff should have the confidence to speak up without fear and with the knowledge that any genuine concern will be treated seriously and investigated properly. The NHS confidential alert line provides a safe place where they can confidentially raise any concerns they may have about malpractice and wrongdoing in NHS Scotland. Increasingly, callers have raised their concern internally first, which may suggest staff feel more confident using internal procedures.
Robison also announced that “work is also under way to establish the independent national whistleblowing officer who will provide external review on the handling of whistleblowing cases in NHS Scotland”.
Official figures indicate that there were over 14,000 assaults on staff in NHS Scotland over the last nine months.
There were 13,957 incidents of violence against staff in the nine months to December 2015, figures obtained by Scottish Labour reveal.
Full-year data for the previous financial year indicates that in excess of 22,000 incidents of violence took place within the health service in Scotland.
The shocking figures have drawn condemnation from all strata of the political process.
In particular, the Scottish government indicated that “perpetrators must be dealt with in the strongest possible terms”.
Responding to the information acquired by Scottish Labour, the hierarchy of the party implored the Scottish government to ensure that individuals who attack staff are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Steps should also be taken in order to minimise violence against staff, according to the Scottish Labour party.
Commenting on the issue, the public services spokesman for the Scottish Labour Party, Dr Richard Simpson, was strident in his belief that the existing situation is simply unacceptable.
“No-one should face the threat of violence for doing their job. Our NHS staff are Scotland’s unsung heroes having dedicated their careers to helping others and saving lives. We learned this week that more working days are being lost due to staff stress, but these new figures should concern us all.”
Simpson also called for stiffer penalties to be levied against people who act violently within the health service.
“The SNP government must work with health boards, trades unions and staff to ensure that the conditions exist where such offences are minimised – and also to ensure that those who are violent are properly prosecuted. Many people will question if a fine is the most appropriate way to deal with assaults on NHS staff.”
The Scottish Health Secretary Shona Robison largely agreed with the position of Simpson, and spoke out strongly against the culture of violence that NHS employees must tolerate.
“Attacks against our NHS staff are despicable and the perpetrators must be dealt with in the strongest possible terms. No-one should be the victim of abuse or violence while at work. We continue to encourage all NHS organisations to support criminal proceedings against anyone who assaults our staff.”
However, Robinson also defended the Scottish government against accusations of leniency, outlining the legislative measures in place to deal with violence in the health service.
Robinson noted that the Emergency Workers Act includes a penalty of up to 12 months’ imprisonment, a £10,000 fine, or both.
“In 2008 this government extended the act to include GPs and doctors, nurses and midwives working in the community. Enforcing this extended law, and working with NHS boards, staff and trade union representatives has helped to bring down the number of attacks and improve workplace safety. The 2015 NHS Scotland staff survey found a 10 percentage point reduction in the number of staff who had experienced a physical attack since 2008. NHS staff care for the health of our country and that’s why we must all be ready to stand up for them.”
An innovative project – entitled ‘My Diabetes My Way’ – which allows people with diabetes electronic access to their medical records has been recognised with a top UK award.
Led by the University of Dundee in partnership with NHS Scotland, the project has been named winner of the Education and Self-Management Award at the 2015 Diabetes UK Annual Professional Conference.
The project offers people with diabetes anywhere in Scotland online access to their medical records, explaining the clinical measurements that are presented; the personalised and tailored information also helps people understand and take control of their condition.
The project fought off fierce competition from five other shortlisted candidates from across the UK to win the award.
“This is fantastic recognition for the work of the ‘My Diabetes My Way’ team over the last few years”, said Dr Scott Cunningham, the project’s technical lead based at the University of Dundee. “We hope this leads to greater awareness of the service to ensure that anyone with an interest in accessing their records online hears about it and signs up. The project is a strong example of the ways in which we can engage with patients and help transform the care and the quality of information they receive.”