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Professional dilemma

Whistleblowing in pharmacy: know your rights and obligations

Pharmacists and lawyers give advice on what to do if you witness inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.

Whistleblower png

Source: Mclean / Shutterstock.com

The problem

You work as a band 6 pharmacist within an NHS trust. A few months ago, you witnessed one of the senior pharmacists acting in an inappropriate manner towards another member of staff, which warrants reporting.

What should you do and what are your rights as an employee if you were to raise a concern and make a disclosure?

Aisha Ahmed

Source: Aisha Ahmed

‘Action needs to be taken where action is due’

As a pharmacist, I am in a position to actively take a stance against inappropriate behaviour and challenge it. As a newly qualified junior pharmacist, new to the NHS trust, it can be more challenging to take a stance — especially in this situation where a senior pharmacist is involved. However, this would not stop me from taking action, nor raising my concerns through the appropriate channels.

A major point discussed throughout my undergraduate and preregistration training was the importance of accurate and timely documentation; therefore, I would endeavour to document the events of the incident in as much detail as possible.

I would speak to the member of staff on the receiving end of the misconduct to ensure they felt supported. Keeping their confidentiality in mind, I would ask other members of staff if they too had witnessed any inappropriate behaviour.

I would then report my concerns to my line manager or a senior member of staff because they should be the first point of call for escalating a whistleblowing case, so that the behaviour can be addressed promptly and appropriately. My trust also provides other services to report my concerns, which includes a helpline and confidential email portal. The email portal has the option of remaining anonymous, should I be in a position where I felt unable to report my concerns via management.

If the case required it, it may be necessary to report to the GPhC as well. Protecting patient safety and the safety of staff members in the workplace coincides with upholding the values and standards of the profession. Action needs to be taken where action is due, and this scenario presents a case for such.

Aisha Ahmed is a newly registered pharmacist at Northern Care Alliance NHS Group

Sam Stephenson

Source: Sam Stephenson

‘You should feel safe to raise concerns within the NHS’

As a pharmacy professional, you have a duty to speak up about concerns. Provided you are acting honestly, it does not matter if there is an innocent explanation for what you witnessed. Raising your concerns with your chief pharmacist or another senior staff member is a reasonable first course of action. If you feel nothing has been done about your concerns, I would recommend speaking with them again as action may well be underway; however, if nothing has been done you may need to escalate your concerns.

Following the Mid Staffs public inquiry, which exposed unacceptable levels of patient care and an NHS environment that deterred staff from raising concerns, Sir Robert Francis published the ‘Freedom to speak up’ report. In response to this, NHS trusts are now mandated to implement ‘Freedom to speak up guardians’ who can be approached in confidence to discuss any concerns employees may have. These guardians can escalate concerns through a national network, including to the National Guardian’s Office, if required.

You should feel safe to raise concerns within the NHS and can raise concerns anonymously; however, it may assist investigations if you are willing to be contacted about what you witnessed. You remain protected from detrimental treatment or victimisation from your employer by the Public Interest Disclosure Act if you are acting in the public interest.

If you still think your concern has not been addressed, you could consider contacting a member of your trust’s board of directors or the chair of the board directly. You may also want to discuss with your union or the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, if you are a member. There are also several sources of external support you could consider contacting, such as the NHS whistleblowing helpline, Public Concern at Work or NHS Improvement.

Sam Stephenson is the principal pharmacist for formulary, pathways and individual funding requests at King’s College Hospital Foundation Trust and sits as a registrant member of the General Pharmaceutical Council’s fitness to practise committee

Siobhan Howard Palmer

Source: Siobhan Howard Palmer

‘By raising a concern, you could be protecting yourself, colleagues and stakeholders’

If you witness something inappropriate in the workplace, or become aware of other potential breaches, you should feel comfortable enough to speak up. This may be in the form of the NHS Improvement ‘Freedom to speak up’ programme, by raising a grievance or by making a protected disclosure through other means. By raising a concern, you could be protecting yourself, colleagues and stakeholders.

For whistleblowing, the identified malpractices are: suspected criminal offences; a breach of legal obligation; miscarriages of justice; danger to health and safety; damage to the environment; and the deliberate concealing of information about any of the former. If you sound the alarm on any of these matters, you may have made a ‘protected disclosure’, affording you legal protection against unfair dismissal and other detriments. The wrongdoing can be past, present, prospective or alleged, but you must have a reasonable belief at the time that this conduct has, or will, occur and you will need to provide information about it to someone who represents the employing body. Doing this in writing is best, but verbal concerns are still valid. Additionally, you must believe any concern you raise is in the public interest. If you raise a concern about discriminatory or harassing behaviour and are then put to a disadvantage because of this, it could be victimisation.

All NHS trusts should have a whistleblowing policy and grievance procedure to follow. If you are subsequently treated in a negative way, then you may have a claim in the employment tribunal. If your disclosure satisfies the legal tests, you have legal protection, irrelevant of how long you have been working there. Whistleblowing protection also extends to prospective applicants to the NHS. If in doubt, follow the procedures in place and seek advice from a legal or human resources expert.

Siobhan Howard-Palmer is a senior associate solicitor in the employment team at Brabners LLP, specialising in employment law

Rachael Quinian

Source: Rachael Quinian

‘It should be raised early so that wrongdoing can be dealt with without delay’

If something causes you concern — particularly if it is putting colleagues or patients at risk — then it should be raised early so that any suspected wrongdoing can be dealt with properly and without delay. You may have reservations about reporting the incident because you fear reprisals, but there are systems in place to support you if you choose to make a disclosure.

How you approach the situation may be determined by the inappropriate behaviour, the level of risk to staff and the public and the legal or ethical nature of what is going on. Below are some possible options for dealing with this situation:

  • Speak to the member of staff involved, to try and encourage them to raise the concern themselves, being mindful that they are entitled to confidentiality and they may not want to disclose the incident;
  • Take advice before raising a concern without the other person’s consent, particularly if you consider that they, other members of staff or patients are being put at risk, or if an illegal or unethical activity is taking place. Remember your colleague’s right to confidentiality and privacy when discussing your concern with others;
  • Take advice from your indemnity provider, union, or another pharmacy organisation, or seek independent legal advice;
  • Consult the whistleblowing policy within your organisation/workplace, detailing how concerns can be raised;
  • Raise the concern again with the chief pharmacist (or whoever is detailed in your whistleblowing policy) — you can do this formally or anonymously if you think it is appropriate, but consider the risks of raising a concern anonymously.

Rachel Quinlan is a professional support pharmacist at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society

Additional resources

 

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2019.20207256

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