Earlier this month the appeal panel set up by the Epsom and St Helier University NHS Trust under Mrs Claire McLaughlan rejected the appeal by Dr Usha Prasad, the cardiologist, against her sacking. She is said to be ” unfit for purpose”. For many the verdict was thought to be inevitable given the enormous lengths the trust had gone to dismiss her, but the findings are worth highlighting because it is a perfect example of why this internal system is in disrepute and needs to be scrapped.
The unwieldly nature of the Maintaining High Professional Standards Appeal system set up in 2003 by the NHS is itself “unfit for purpose” as illustrated by an enlightening article in the Health Services Journal by Alastair Currie, a partner with the law firm Bevan Brittan.
“No sane NHS manager would use MHPS”
He wrote: “MHPS is a calamitous mess of a document,” and goes on to say:
“MHPS, at 59 pages, is a bloated mixture of inconsistent policy verbiage and labyrinthine procedure. It seems designed to promote High Court debate … and so it often does. There is a devastating trail of case-law left by MHPS, each case involving a doctor or dentist and their employer becoming miserably entrenched in MHPS for years before landing in the courts.”
“No sane manager wants to touch MHPS, let alone use it frequently or to intervene early in borderline bad practice. It is well known that any attempt to use MHPS risks years of disputes and litigation.”
So it is a supreme irony that the law firm Bevan Brittan is the very company that facilitated the MHPS hearing on the Usha Prasad case. While Alastair Currie denounced the system in the most colourful language, his colleague Tim Gooder, was fixing up the arrangements for the hearing. Still never get between a law firm and their business to make money. I wonder which ” insane” manager from the trust engaged them.
Now to the hearing itself. The report begins with a desperate defence that the three main members of the panel are independent. Claire McLaughlan emphasises that she is a non practising barrister. What she should have said, I am told, is that she is an unregistered barrister because she has never worked for a law firm and never completed any pupillage. The analogy which she should know is that a qualified doctor is not properly qualified until he or she has worked in a hospital.
Dr Zoe Penn has a high flying job as a medical director and lead for professional standards at NHS England and Improvement (London region). She, I understand, has refused to communicate any explanation of the decision hiding behind the “labyrinthine procedure” of MPHS.
And Ms Aruna Mehta, a former banker and non executive director of the trust, I gather was appointed to the trust without any competition for the post.
The panel could not find that Dr Prasad was ” not fit to practice” because she has been both exonerated and revalidated by the General Medical Council. They didn’t even bother to read all the detailed expert findings in the GMC report. So citing the bad relations in the hospital trust between medical colleagues they decided that Dr Prasad was not fit for purpose.
Back of an envelope decision
The relevant paragraph said: “The GMC were concerned with Dr Prasad’s fitness to practise whereas the MHPS panel were concerned about Dr Prasad’s fitness for purpose. The Panel are fully cognisant that these are two different considerations, with different tests, thresholds, processes and outcomes. Fitness to practise distinguishes behaviours which are not in keeping with GMC requirements on good medical practice and therefore may have an impact on a doctor’s licence or registration from behaviours which are not in keeping with a doctor’s ability to carry out a particular professional role. Although the latter do not breach the threshold for GMC action it does mean that a doctor is not fit
Yet nowhere are these different tests and thresholds explained nor how a human being rather than a system or faulty goods can be classified as unfit for purpose. It is as almost Mrs McLaughlan made the concept up on the back of the envelope just to find anything to attack her. And also safe in the knowledge that the MHPS protects her from explaining herself.
Certainly there are purple passages slamming Usha Prasad’s perceived failings: “Dr Prasad made mediation unviable, refused to participate in a behavioural assessment, made a placement impossible, refused a sabbatical, did not engage with the Trust’s MHPS investigation, responded antagonistically throughout and submitted multiple grievances as a result of any challenge. She appears unable to accept help from her peers but sees everything through the prism of victimhood.”
Yet this is at total odds with reports from Pinderfields Hospital near Wakefield where has received glowing tributes for being able to work there with colleagues while on a placement from St Helier – the report seems to suggest that she is a Jekyll and Hyde figure.
The report does not exonerate other senior figures in the cardiology department. Dr Richard Bogle, who was head of the cardiology department, is criticised: “The Panel were concerned about some of Dr Bogle’s actions and non-actions while clinical leader and how little leadership he demonstrated. He displayed little empathy in relation to the anonymous letters. As the departmental leader he could have undertaken an investigation himself into the relationships within the department.”
Also the inquiry has to admit that the way the trust collected evidence against her to send to the GMC was dubious. “The 43 cases do appear to have been gathered in a haphazard, rather than properly random, fashion. This could be construed as a hunt for evidence rather than a proper audit of clinical care against known gold standard best practise which is properly comparative with others i.e. benchmarking.”
This sorry saga has ended with a popular and competent cardiologist dismissed from the trust and declared to be ” unfit for purpose” as a human being. The truth, as I see it, is that it is the system that judged her that is ” unfit for purpose” not Dr Prasad.
THE USHA PRASAD FILE: PREVIOUS STORIES
Professor Jane Somerville, a distinguished cardiologist , who took part in the first heart transplant in the UK, has put up this comment on the situation:
This story highlights a serious problem within the National Health Service which needs urgently to be addressed by the Department of Health. The number of new whistleblowing scandals is steadily increasing. It is concerning when dismissal of a senior doctor following a “whistleblowing” event (as in this case) occurs at a time when insecure young doctors and new consultants are worrying about what sort of National Health Service has employed them – and in the middle of the worst pandemic for 100 years! In David Hencke’s excellent factual reports, a BAME consultant, easily bullied by the Trust despite being found by our regulatory body (the GMC) to be ” fit to practice” has lost her livelihood on grounds of not being “fit for purpose”. This interesting phrase does not appear in English Employment Law, and when used applies to services or goods. Perhaps the Trust wishes to show she is as useless as a cardboard box!
Why does the Department of Health or NHS England allow hospital Trusts to do this, to fight whistleblowing staff but fail to address their original concerns or even pay any lip service to them, using vast sums of taxpayers money (>£700k going on £1m in the case of Dr Chris Day, see @drcmday on Twitter) which the “little person”, the doctor under fire, cannot hope to match? In an exercise of gross imbalance of power and taxpayers’ money Trusts respond to whistleblowers by using panels of seemingly prejudiced and dubious panellists and often expensive lawyers.
These bullying Trusts have too much power and no one seems to be able or willing to control their excesses. This is not a unique case. There have been several very prominent examples in the national press over the past 2 decades. The Department of Health should be concerned about the oppression of their vital professionals, unequipped to fight back and often not helped by representative bodies (such as the BMA), or seniors who may themselves be too frightened of a Trust’s retribution. This cannot be a fair outcome for whistleblowers whose primary motives are to preserve and maintain patient safety, often requesting simple as well as fundamental changes and fair but thorough investigation of underlying problems. A Trusts’ response to whistleblowing often seems corrupted by internal bias. The Department of Health turns a blind eye or does not care. Sir Robert Francis QC was asked to report (2010 and 2013) on failings of Mid Staffs management and avoidable loss of lives. He made many (290) recommendations and introduced the Freedom To Speak Up Guardian. Only a few of 290 recommendations were adopted and FTSU process is not functioning as intended. The Dept of Health should be ashamed of ignoring its responsibilities to the NHS, its doctors (and nurses) and the British electorate. Not to mention the huge sums of taxpayers money expended to save face and cover up the initial problems as well as the labyrinthine process itself.
Professor Jane Somerville