Patient’s Post-Surgery Death Leads to Controversy Over Alleged “Witch-hunt” for Whistleblower

On January 17, The Times reported that substantial controversy has arisen relating to the death of a woman who had undergone surgery at the West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St. Edmunds, England.  After an anonymous letter to the woman’s husband alleged errors in the woman’s surgery, the hospital reportedly asked its staff “to provide fingerprints and examples of their handwriting to try to establish whether they had written [the] anonymous letter.”

In 2018, the woman, Sue Warby, died five weeks after bowel surgery at the West Suffolk Hospital.  In October 2018, after the anonymous letter was sent to Mrs. Warby’s husband, Jon Warby,

Suffolk police and the hospital started investigations into the source of the letter at the request of the coroner.

The hospital, which insists that an investigation into Mrs Warby’s care was already under way, asked staff to provide fingerprints and handwriting samples. It is said to have spent £968 on a handwriting expert and £1,512 on a fingerprint expert.

The hospital stated that it had already begun an investigation into Mrs. Warby’s case at the time that Suffolk Police began their investigation.  According to The Times, however, “[i]n a staff meeting the hospital warned that ‘any refusal to provide consent . . . would be considered evidence which implicates you as being involved in the writing of the letter’.”  A union spokesperson described the hospital’s actions in the circumstances as a “witch-hunt.”

Although the hospital “denied that staff were threatened with disciplinary action if they did not offer fingerprints,” it reportedly apologized to them.  In addition, the West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust stated that it has no intention of pursuing fingerprint requests further.

Nigel Parsley, the senior coroner for Suffolk, indicated that based on investigations into the anonymous letter’s claims “there had been problems involving an arterial line fitted to Mrs Warby in surgery.”  Mr. Warby himself said that that he was told during his wife’s operation that

an arterial line was fitted with an intravenous infusion to keep it clear but that she was incorrectly given glucose instead of saline. “I asked what the effect of this could be and the consultant told me brain damage or death,” he said.

When a spokesman for Downing Street was asked whether the measures that the West Suffolk Hospital had taken were appropriate, he replied, “Public safety is our priority. Mistakes should be used to learn from and improve. No one should be prevented from speaking up. Whistleblowers perform a vital service for the NHS. They must have a safe and open culture to do so.”

The Care Quality Commission, an executive public body of the United Kingdom Department of Health and Social Care, is preparing an inspection report that will include findings on the Warby matter.  That report is expected to be published before mid-February 2020.

Note:  Compliance officers at hospitals and other medical facilities should use this controversy as an opportunity to train their institutions’ management and staffs in how to handle whistleblower allegations with care.  Even if the Suffolk Police itself had an interest in identifying the author of the letter to facilitate its investigation, the hospital’s reported actions – particularly the threat of inferring culpability from a staff member’s refusal to consent – strongly suggests an internal culture antipathetic to whistleblowers.

For their part, the hospital and its trust should take the Downing Street statement as a strong indication that they need to review and revise their procedures for handling whistleblower complaints.  No hospital should ever create an impression within its staff that reporting of a problem with patient care should be met with bullying, intimidation, or efforts to expose the whistleblower, rather than prompt and evenhanded inquiry into the report.