Almost two years ago, a cancer surgeon named Joseph Meirion Thomas decided that he could no longer keep quiet about what he regarded as a major abuse of the NHS.
The francis Inquiry into the hospital scandal at Stafford Hospital had just published its report reminding doctors of their ‘duty of candour’. Thomas interpreted that to mean health professionals ‘should feel supported and protected should they ever need to speak out’.
In that spirit, he wrote in the Spectator magazine about ‘health tourism’ – foreign nationals using NHS services to which they are not entitled, placing an already overburdened system under yet more strain.
His article caught the attention of Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, who ordered a full investigation. Encouraged, Thomas went on to write more articles about the NHS’s problems – much to the chagrin of the health establishment.
The last of these sought to challenge the idea that GPs are always and everywhere a force for good. In fact they’re overrated, he said. Rather than being ‘supported and protected’, Thomas then found himself suspended from his job and ordered not to air his views in public again. Even now, he is unable to tell his story.
Like most whistleblowers, Meirion Thomas is a prickly character, as Jeremy Hunt soon discovered. The Health Secretary contacted him in person after the ‘health tourism’ article to applaud his stand.
Hunt’s reward was a follow up article accusing the Government of failing ‘to grasp the nettle’ of health tourism – and then another arguing that its whole approach to NHS reform was wrongheaded.
He wrote a further piece in the Daily Mail proposing sensible measures to limit health tourism. The articles caused quite a stir.
It’s easy to see why. Many of the NHS’s 1.7million staff can see what’s wrong with the service but are afraid to speak out.
This lack of candour, as the Francis Inquiry concluded, has become one of the most serious problems facing British healthcare.
Even discussing NHS failures in private can be risky. Doing it in the press is tantamount to career suicide.
Just ask Shiban Ahmed, a paediatric surgeon who attempted to blow the whistle on the ‘barbaric and amateur’ circumcisions of boys aged six to ten at the hands of poorly trained GPs. He flagged the issue and ended up facing disciplinary action.
Or there’s Peter O’Keefe, a heart surgeon who was suspended (on ‘bullying’ charges) after he raised concerns about the treatment of a patient who had serious brain damage. Or Dr Raj Mattu, a cardiologist who lost his job at a Coventry hospital after warning on national radio that patients were dying because a cardiac unit was overcrowded.
But Thomas refused to be cowed. A year ago, he wrote an article for the Daily Mail floating the politically incorrect idea that the growing dominance of women doctors in British healthcare is a potential problem.
His full article led to Lucy Garden, a doctor in Nottingham, to put an online petition on change.org entitled: ‘Stop Prof Meirion Thomas disrespecting GP’s , female and overseas doctors in the media.’
She suggested that he’d breached the General Medical Council’s rules on doctorly behaviour.
It’s hard to change the culture of a cherished but flawed institution such as the NHS, especially when the treatment of such people as Thomas sends a strong message.