NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Millions Spent On Doctor "Gagging Orders" By NHS, Investigation Finds

August 3, 2010

Doctors who quit their jobs are being routinely forced to sign "gagging orders" despite legislation designed to protect whistleblowers in the National Health Service (NHS), Great Britain's government-run health care system, says the Independent.   

Millions of pounds of taxpayers' money are being spent on contracts that deter doctors from speaking out about incompetence and mistakes in patient care.  Nearly 90 percent of severance agreements hammered out between NHS trusts and departing doctors contain confidentiality clauses, says the Independent. 

According to a joint investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Channel 4 News: 

  • At least 170 doctors in England and Wales agreed to such a settlement with the trust employing them -- backed up by payoffs totaling more than £3 million (about U.S. $4 million).
  • Fifty-five of the 64 contracts supplied by the trusts to the investigation team contained gagging clauses; the agreements have to be approved by the Treasury.
  • The bureau discovered that a further 19 NHS staff who decided to go to employment tribunals after blowing the whistle on hospital standards eventually settled before their allegations were made public.  

The widespread use of "gagging orders" against senior NHS staff that could raise patient safety concerns will intensify the doubts over the protection given to whistleblowers, says the Independent. 

Campaign groups claim that NHS managers sometimes resort to intimidating medics to keep them from coming forward, while others that break cover can face years of expense and uncertainty before their cases reach court.  The result, they say, is that doctors accept the gagging clauses in order to protect their careers and avoid legal wrangling. 

Using Freedom of Information (FoI) requests, it emerged that 71 NHS trusts had entered into these agreements with a total of 170 doctors, although the true figure could be higher, as many failed to respond: 

  • Twenty-two of the agreements were signed at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.
  • Forty spent a total of just over £3 million (about U.S. $4 million) on the agreements; however, a further 31 trusts simply refused to disclose the size of the payments.
  • Another 19 health whistleblowers decided to take their cases to court, but abandoned them after signing so-called compromise agreements with employers.  

Source: Nigel Morris, "Millions spent on doctor 'gagging orders' by NHS, investigation finds," The Independent (UK), August 2, 2010. 

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