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U.K. Whistleblower Fights Back

Today’s blog is a shameless attempt to promote whistleblowing on an international basis. The Guardian (fresh from its Pulitzer prize-winning reporting on Edward Snowden) now features what to most Americans is a more traditional kind of whistleblower story. Here is the headline:

“Whistleblowing heart doctor who aired hospital safety fears wins tribunal case. Trust spent £6m in effort to discredit cardiologist Raj Mattu but tribunal rules that sacking by Coventry hospital was unjustified.”

That’s six million pounds, so you will have to check the current conversion rate to determine how much that is in U.S. dollars. Either way, it’s a lot of money to spend to go after a doctor.

The story seems to highlight some differences in how health care is allocated in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, but I guess the bottom line is pretty much the same; whistleblowers are required to expose systematic failures in patient care. In this case a heart surgeon, Dr. Raj Mattu, was alarmed by the way a hospital was trying to save money and when he went public, he was fired.

“Mattu was sacked by University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust in 2010, nine years after he first aired his concerns publicly about what he said was dangerous post-operative care. He highlighted a series of worries about patient safety, including the cases of two patients who died in crowded bays.”

“He voiced alarm at the hospital’s ‘five-in-four’ policy, under which – to save money – an extra fifth bed was placed in a bay intended for only four patients. The Commission for Health Improvement, the then NHS watchdog, condemned the practice and criticised the hospital, which it said had a much higher death rate than should have been expected.”

The judge ruled that Mattu would receive compensation for being unfairly dismissed. The doctor’s treatment as a whistleblower has an all too familiar ring to it. He had to fight this action in court and, only after a long legal battle, was he able to prevail.

I am, of course, not familiar with British Law or even the health care system in the U.K. I do know, however, that a whistleblower who is interested in reporting safety violations should not be treated this way. Indeed such a whistleblower should be rewarded. That part is what the U.S. Federal False Claims Act at least attempts to get right. In addition to anti-retaliation provisions, the law not only provides the possibility of a whistleblower reward it also gives the plaintiff an opportunity to begin the case “under seal,” that is in secret. This process can give the whistleblower an initial chance to report the violations to the government and see if there is any support for the case.

Dr. Mattu faced retribution because he went public. At least he was able to prevail eventually. In the U.S., whistleblowers often feel that they have no choice but to go public as well. However, nobody should take such action in this country without first contacting a lawyer. In the U.S there is at least an initial choice to report the case under seal. The case will not stay secret forever, but the initial seal period can give the whistleblower an advantage not only in pursuing the case but also in protecting themselves from the kind of retaliation this heroic doctor in suffered.