NHS whistleblower in West Suffolk will ‘never be the same again’

A whistleblower at the centre of a bullying scandal at West Suffolk hospital says she will “never be the same again” after being “pursued” by NHS managers when she raised concerns about a doctor injecting himself with drugs while on duty.

Dr Patricia Mills was exonerated last week in an independent NHS review that was highly critical of the way she was ignored and then subjected to disciplinary investigation that verged on “victimisation”.

All of the executives have since left, and now the chair of the West Suffolk NHS foundation hospital trust, Sheila Kinderhuis, is under intense pressure to resign.

The review, by Christine Outram, chair of the Christie NHS foundation trust, said Mills’s concerns about the self-injecting doctor were “well founded” and yet, instead of acting on them, managers subjected her to an investigation that lacked “fairness, balance and compassion”.

It included what Outram called the “incendiary” and “extremely ill-judged” demand to Mills and other doctors for fingerprint samples as part of a management hunt for an anonymous letter-writer who had tipped off a grieving family about a potentially botched operation.

“I do feel vindicated,” Mills, a 53-year-old anaesthetist, het die Guardian gesê, but she said the 21-month investigation into her conduct, which was only formally dropped in September, has had a lasting impact.

“I will never be the same again. To be absolutely pursued like that by your employer inevitably has long-term consequences in terms of psychological wellbeing. It was an orchestrated campaign that really floored me.”

Outram’s report noted that one of the hospital trust’s board members regarded Mills as a “terrorist in our midst”.

The former chief executive Steve Dunn, wie left the trust in July in the fallout from the scandal, emailed Mills in the summer offering to apologise in person for the distress the organisation had caused. “I thanked him for the sentiment but at the time I wasn’t psychologically robust enough to meet him,” Mills said.

Sy het bygevoeg: “I’m concerned about the lack of accountability for what happened. Tremendous damage was caused to individuals and to the trust, but there is no regulation for managers in the way there is for health professionals. All the executives involved were just thanked for their service when they either retired or left.”

Dunn’s salary will be paid by the trust until September 2022 while he is on secondment as a researcher at the Nuffield Trust health thinktank.

Its spokesman said Dunn “has accepted the failings and shortcomings around the handling of events leading up to and surrounding the whistleblowing”.

Outram criticised Childerhouse for failing to take up Mills’ concerns when she sent the chair a “confidential” email in 2018 expressing alarm that the self-injecting doctor was being allowed to continue to treat patients.

When the email was passed on to the chief executive, Mills was accused of trouble making, libelling the doctor, and trying to undermine the hospital’s medical director.

Her report expressed incredulity that the board did not question why the executive later demanded fingerprint samples from Mills and others. She wrote: “Whilst some members of the board, including the chair, were made aware of the decision to seek biometric data I was startled to learn from two of the trust’s non-executive directors that the first they learnt of it was when the Guardian broke the story in December 2019.”

Announcing Outram’s report to parliament last week, health minister Edward Argar, said it described “a breakdown in working practices and [shone] a light upon an executive team that was not sufficiently held to account by its board”.

Childerhouse was expected to come under pressure to resign at a meeting of the board on 16 December after being urged to consider her position by senior medical staff at a meeting on Tuesday; egter, the meeting was postponed until January.

Mills said: “Many consultants from all specialities feel the chair’s position has become really untenable.” She added: “Without the press coverage they would have got away with it.”

Mills was signed off work twice with stress and feared for her job for two years. But she and others who were unfairly suspected by bosses of writing the anonymous letter, continued to work at the hospital throughout the pandemic. “We kept on working despite what felt like grenades being thrown at us by management," sy het gese.

Mills said: “I love my job, and I work with great colleagues. And if we hadn’t been going through this together I think I would have given up.”

She is also furious about the amount of money the trust spent on external investigations into her conduct, both of which were found to be flawed by Outram.

Mills said: “They would have cost tens of thousands of pounds, which was a complete waste of money. All it did was make me and other people ill. We are here to provide health care to the people of Bury St Edmunds and the tragedy of this is that so much time, energy and money was focused on absolutely the wrong things.”

She hopes West Suffolk and other NHS hospitals can learn from the saga. “Boards should be there to provide oversight of the actions of the executives. They are supposed to be a critical friend, but the balance has erred towards friendship and away from asking searching questions.”

The trust refused to comment on Childerhouse’s future. It has apologised to staff affected and said has pledged further changes to “create an open, fair and inclusive organisation”.

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