Children’s heart surgery is something I have a close interest in as a parent – till she had an operation at the hands of a world-leading surgeon, my daughter had a rather large hole where four distinct chambers should be. And I’ve known more than my fair share of children with congenital heart problems who didn’t make it.
To put it mildly, anyone touched by child cardiology comes out the other side of the experience rather suddenly more grown up.
But my interest in the temporary cessation of children’s heart surgery at Leeds General Infirmary is piqued more by the fairly shrill response to medical director of the NHS Bruce Keogh’s intervention, notably from the local Liberal Democrat MP Greg Mulholland.
Mulholland’s reaction highlights all the problems that bodies – public and private – have in trying to ingrain a healthy culture in organisations in ways that lower their risks, whether it is in banking or the NHS, and might also lower our own risks.
Put simply, in-house counsel and compliance officers, charged with managing risks in organisations should despair about the way this has played out.
There were two ‘whistleblower’-style reports here, and a set of data that at the time looked like cause for concern.
We surely aren’t so far from events in Mid Staffs, or even Bristol Royal Infirmary (where things really were amiss with children’s heart surgery), that we think Keogh shouldn’t have taken a precautionary approach here.
To act on concerns (a temporary measure), surely sends the right message about openness and reporting to anyone in an organisation who has worries. Because as it stands, whistleblowers in cases where such worries were proved justified tend to have paid a high price – just look at the careers of those who spoke out in Bristol.
In our banks, many people troubled by malpractice were made to feel they would endanger the institution and its profits unnecessarily if they rocked the boat.
Similarly, Mulholland has conflated the issue of the temporary closure quite wrongly with fears of cuts to the NHS, and accused Keogh of threatening jobs. As well as calling for his resignation.
If you’re wondering how all this fits with the culture of openness that the Liberal Democrats promoted in proposals such as a duty of medical candour (look at the legal case for it), the answer is that it doesn’t.
It is the sort of reaction that in another field emasculates the Sarbanes-Oxley Act’s power to reassure through a working structure of ‘whistleblowing’ opportunities.
To be fair to the MP, I don’t think he and others lining up to give Keogh a good kicking have thought this through. But until they do, our children, our banks, our businesses and our workplaces are less safe for it.
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor
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