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Whistle-blowers and the HSE

It often strikes me, though, that while ‘award-winning journalists’ garner glory and praise, the ultimate heroes of the hour are quietly living lives away from the spotlight. These people picked up the phone to a journalist and said, ‘I think there is something you need to look into’.

Such courageous citizens have undoubtedly driven much of the fine work of the RTÉ Investigations Unit over recent years. The Unit’s expose of the human suffering associated with languishing on published and unpublished waiting lists was one of a number of revealing programmes on the health sector.

The Unit also uncovered the horrific abuses at the HSE Áras Attracta residential home; the extraordinary misuse of public monies by former suicide prevention charity Console; and procurement controversies in the hospital sector, to name some if its investigations.

In this edition of the Medical Independent (MI), HSE Director General Mr Tony O’Brien is quoted as praising the work done by RTÉ. However, his organisation has done relatively little to encourage whistle-blowing and exposure of abuses and mismanagement, and quite a lot to discourage it.

Much of HSE literature on protected disclosures refers to provisions in the Health Act 2007, which are actively discouraging of whistle-blowing, rather than heavily promoting the Protected Disclosures Act 2014, which reflects international best practice.

The Department of Health has identified limited circumstances where some of the protected disclosure provisions in the Health Act may remain in play. However, it has recognised that disclosures covered by both Acts are applicable to the newer legislation.

Notably, the Protected Disclosures Act 2014 provides that reports can be made to journalists, TDs and civil society organisations, although certain conditions must be met to qualify these as protected disclosures.

The HSE says there has been “widespread dissemination of information” on protected disclosures legislation. 

Nevertheless,  there is no reference to the Protected Disclosures Act 2014, or its strong protections, in the HSE Employee Handbook 2016-17, nor substantive information on protected disclosures in general, although it is not without mention and Mr O’Brien does urge whistle-blowing in his foreword.

The Employee Handbook is at pains, however, to outline to staff how they should engage with the media, and the consequences if one does not follow protocol: “The giving of interviews, statements or any other information connected with the services provided by the organisation should not be undertaken without the approval of the HSE Communications Division. Such unapproved actions have the capacity to prejudice the interests and reputation of the organisation and, in this regard, will be considered to be a disciplinary matter to be dealt with under normal procedures.”

Message received, loud and clear.

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