England’s health secretary says he is worried and troubled by allegations of a “toxic culture” at one of the country’s biggest hospital trusts.
In a letter, Steve Barclay said claims of those blowing the whistle at University Hospitals Birmingham (UHB) “must be acted on”.
A BBC Newsnight investigation heard claims that disciplinary processes were being used to intimidate clinicians.
UHB denied it had misused referrals to the General Medical Council.
It said patient safety was its top priority and a series of reviews were being carried out, looking at a number of threads.
Birmingham MP Preet Gill had written to the health secretary demanding a public inquiry into the culture at the trust which runs four hospitals in the city – Heartlands, Good Hope, Queen Elizabeth and Solihull.
Since Newsnight’s investigation, Labour’s Ms Gill said she had been “inundated” with messages from UHB staff past and present “to share their experience of what has been repeatedly described as a toxic culture that has had an alarming impact on staff and patient care”.
In a reply, Mr Barclay said it was “troubling to learn of reports that threats of referral to the General Medical Council (GMC) have been made towards those raising concerns”.
“I share your concerns about the reports of poor culture at UHB,” he told the Labour MP.
“It is clear that lessons must be learned and that the issues raised by those who have spoken up about their experiences should be acted upon.”
It comes as a confidential report by the Unison trade union and seen by Newsnight found “parallels” between UHB and the culture at Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust.
The Francis inquiry into Mid Staffs found hundreds of patients had died in the most appalling conditions of neglect, with many staff too afraid to raise the alarm.
The Unison report said: “We believe the same atmosphere and poor culture exists at UHB.”
Ravi Subramanian, who leads the union in the West Midlands and who compiled the report, said: “It was really clear that people were being discouraged from reporting incidents because the trust management wanted to say they ran an exemplary hospital and they didn’t have any problems.
“Then when you started digging in further, you could see the use of disciplinary procedures against senior medics to try and stop them from being whistleblowers.
“You could see that people were being bullied, bullied by the threat of referrals to the GMC about whistleblowing.”
The trust said it had not seen or received the Unison report so could not fairly comment, but the local NHS had started three reviews into culture, leadership and patient care at UHB.
It said one focusing on patient safety concerns and GMC referral patterns had been commissioned by NHS Birmingham and Solihull Integrated Care Board and was expected to report back at the end of January.
“Patient safety is the number one priority for the trust and its 22,000 incredible staff, which includes 3% of all doctors in the NHS, at a time of the most serious and challenging pressures faced by the NHS ever,” it said.