DOCTORS are scared they will be victimised if they speak up about issues affecting patient safety, a leading medic has warned.

Dr Lewis Morrison, chair of BMA Scotland, said he did not feel the trade union could encourage its members to whistleblow because the response is "not necessarily a good one for the individual".

Read more: The Fife cancer doctor who won her unfair dismissal case - but still can't get a job in the NHS 

Dr Morrison was speaking after BMA Scotland's own poll found that 38 per cent of its members believed bullying was a problem in their workplace.

The findings - which come in the wake of claims that NHS Highland has been blighted by a "culture of fear and intimidation" for the past decade - triggered BMA Scotland to launch its own research to determine what form bullying is taking, and why it is happening.

He said: "A fully functional and supportive system doesn't need whistleblowing. It celebrates people raising concerns, because that's how you improve quality. We're clearly not there yet.

"People are scared of making mistakes in an under-resourced system, they're scared of what the response to those mistakes is going to be, they are scared that if they raise their concerns about the system they are going to be victimised as a result.

"That is a very powerful, and obviously sad and depressing, message to get from a significant proportion of the people we represent."

In 2016, the General Medical Council (GMC) introduced new safeguards designed to prevent organisations such as health boards from raising "retaliatory referrals" against whistleblowers, amid fears that the system could be misused as a way of silencing medics.

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Since July 2016, the regulator has required organisations to disclose whether a doctor has raised patient safety concerns whenever they are referred to the GMC for alleged misconduct.

According to figures obtained by the Herald, 19 doctors UK-wide have since been counted as 'whistleblowers' in referrals to the GMC.

Anthony Omo, director of fitness to practise at the GMC, said: "It is critical that referral to the GMC by employers is not used as a retaliatory measure to intimidate or punish staff who speak up about patient safety risks. Doctors must be able to raise concerns without fear of reprisal."

Dr Morrison said statistics show that the GMC referral rate in Scotland is lower compared other parts of the UK.

"Exactly why that's the case isn't clear," he said. "There is a feeling that perhaps the health boards are more willing to achieve resolution at local level.

"It's an expensive route to take. NHS Scotland is already short of resources, so anything it can do to preserve resources for what it's meant to be doing - which is providing care - is a good thing.

"An organisation with a high rate of suspensions and a high rate of disciplinary procedures is squandering resources in my view."

The Herald on Sunday yesterday reported on the case of whistleblower Dr Sheena Pinion, who was suspended on full pay from her job at NHS Fife in 2012 and eventually won an unfair dismissal case in 2017 but has been unable to return to work, partly because of her lengthy absence.

Read more: NHS Highland medics speak out about culture of 'fear and intimidation'

Dr Morrison said suspension "should be a last resort", but stressed that it "would be wrong to give the impression that suspension is regularly used a 'weapon' against those raising concerns".

He added: "The question is once you are suspended, does the system resolve the issues rapidly enough? That's very variable."

Dr Morrison has also been critical of an excessive focus on targets, which he believes encourages a bullying culture in the NHS.

He said: "Clearly when targets are part of the culture in which inappropriate behaviours arise, having more of those or a bigger emphasis on those does give people cause for worry.

"An under-resourced and under pressure environment is pressurised further by reinforcing those targets. If we're going to tackle this culture, that sounds like a very difficult environment to do it in."

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said it did not have exact figures for how many doctors in Scotland are currently suspended. 

Former Health Secretary Shona Robison announced in 2017 that an Independent National Whistleblowing Officer (INWO) would be appointed to hold health boards to account, especially where a whistleblower claims to have been unfairly treated.

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: “Health boards have an obligation to make sure the whistleblower is protected throughout the process and does not suffer any harm as a result of speaking up. 

"We will announce the timetable for the legislation to establish the INWO in the coming weeks.”