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Protection for whistleblowers is urgent

A recent industrial tribunal case has shed light on what could possibly be a case of patient maltreatment in the forensic unit of Mount Carmel Hospital. The alleged abuses only came to light after a non-medical employee alleged that nurses on duty at this hospital and caring for mentally ill and ‘demanding’ patients administered non-prescribed drugs to patients.

The industrial tribunal made the astonishing remark that “no evidence was presented during the proceedings to show that the Health Department or the company with which the care worker was employed had conducted an investigation into the reported malpractice”.

The care worker subsequently lost his job and sought remedy from the industrial tribunal that decided in his favour.

Two important issues arise from this sad case. Firstly, one must ask why an allegation made by a care worker who acted as a whistleblower was not investigated immediately by the Health Department that is ultimately responsible for ensuring that patients in State hospitals are treated with dignity and proper care.

From the tribunal proceedings it resulted that the worker in question had reported the alleged abuse both to his employer, Support Services Ltd, and to the Health Department’s night manager responsible for nursing services. One assumes that this whistleblower followed the proper route to bring the alleged abuse to the attention of his bosses.

One must therefore ask why neither his employer nor the Health Department felt the need to investigate further. If the allegation is confirmed, not reporting the incident would have amounted to connivance by this employee.

It is undoubtedly a matter of urgency that whistleblowers should be protected so as to open a window on what goes on behind closed doors in private and public workplaces. This country can no longer rely on conscientious individuals to ensure that transparency and accountability rule in every organisation.

Although this case has now been concluded in the industrial tribunal, more questions need to be asked.

If the allegations prove to be true, action needs to be taken against anyone who maltreated patients in a public hospital when it was clearly his/her duty to care for such patients.

Only a thorough investigation by the Health Department can put people’s minds at rest that hospital patients are not being subjected to any bullying by those whose duty it is to care for them.

The thousands of medical and non-medical staff who work in the health services are generally considered to be caring people who carry out their duties in a professional and humane way as befits a medical environment.

Thus, to allow such a dark shadow to hang on so many dedicated healthcare workers as a result of allegations of maltreatment by a few abusers – allegations that have not been investigated – amounts to an injustice against so many exemplary professionals.

Relatives of patients also have a legitimate right to know how their loved ones are being treated, especially because these may not be able to defend themselves against abuse.

Unfortunately, abuse by employees in hospitals and other care institutions is becoming more common in many countries, possibly reflecting the fall in the ethical sensitivity of a small part of society.

This case demonstrates that no time should be wasted to introduce adequate legislation that offers protection to whistleblowers and to investigate allegations of maltreatment of vulnerable patients in a hospital environment.

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