BOSSES at a Yorkshire NHS trust have denied using staff “gagging orders” after a senior doctor made public details of an agreement which would have barred her even from admitting she had signed it.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has warned NHS chiefs over using legal restrictions preventing staff speaking out over safety after the report into the Mid Staffordshire scandal called for them to be banned.
Now Mary Harrington, a former consultant geriatrician at Aire-dale NHS Foundation Trust, has revealed details of an agreement she was asked to sign on her departure in 2010.
She had raised concerns about nursing standards and safety of elderly care at Airedale General Hospital, near Keighley, but says managers failed to investigate and in turn she was accused of bullying and harassment.
She said an inquiry was under way at the time into the actions of former senior nurse Anne Grigg-Booth, who had been accused of murdering three patients, and management wanted to demonstrate all the circumstances in her case had been addressed.
Dr Harrington said a disciplinary process she faced was halted but when she began a grievance procedure she was “further pilloried”. On her departure, she was asked to sign a contract preventing her even from disclosing she had signed the agreement.
One clause read: “You will not, directly or indirectly, make any detrimental or derogatory statements about your employment, its termination, the trust or any of its associated persons.”
Another said: “You warrant that you have not disclosed to anyone (other than your immediate family in confidence or to your professional advisers in connection with the conclusion of this agreement) the fact of, negotiation and/or terms of this agreement.”
Dr Harrington resigned without signing it as she said it would have prevented her speaking to regulatory bodies including the Care Quality Commission and the General Medical Council. She now works at another NHS hospital.
“I do have an affection for the NHS and have a lifetime working for the benefit of patients. I want the NHS to be an organisation that I can continue working in with a good conscience,” she said.
“Airedale’s practice of using gagging orders works against the agenda of patient safety and maintaining standards of care for local residents.”
She was pleased at Mr Hunt’s warning over gagging orders where patient safety was at stake.
She added: “Airedale NHS trust should take note and change its practice as it is among the many apparently successful hospitals in England and Wales who regard this as normal practice when staff raise concerns. When somebody has concerns in future I hope they can raise them in a climate which is going to be fair to both sides but keep patients in focus.”
In a statement, the trust said the compromise agreement was “standard practice for trusts and other organisations throughout the country when employment is ended” and did contain confidentiality clauses.
“They are written in such a way so that they protect the release of confidential patient and staff information, but do not prevent the disclosure of information which is in the public interest, such as patient safety issues,” it added.
“Dr Harrington did raise some concerns with the trust about patient care, and these were dealt with accordingly.”