MDU welcomes safe space for healthcare staff taking part in safety investigations

A new bill provides healthcare staff with a safe space to speak freely to investigators.

The Medical Defence Union (MDU) welcomes a new bill that gives legal backing for the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch and provides healthcare staff with a safe space to speak freely to investigators. However, the MDU says there should be greater clarity about the powers of bodies to obtain protected material from safety investigations.

The Health Service Safety Investigation Bill, which has its second reading in the House of Lords this afternoon, establishes the Health Service Safety Investigations Body (HSSIB) as an independent legal organisation. HSSIB will investigate NHS patient safety incidents and identify risks to help NHS bodies to improve patient safety. The Bill would also create a safe space to encourage NHS staff to take part in investigations by protecting the information they share with HSSIB during an investigation.

Dr Michael Devlin, MDU head of professional standards and liaison explains:

'It is widely acknowledged that in order to encourage staff to take part in investigations when something has gone wrong, NHS organisations need to have a just and learning culture in place. Providing a safe space for HSSIB investigations is vital because it means healthcare staff giving information to them can do so without fear that it will be disclosed to someone else. Such information may not be used, for example, to instigate disciplinary or other proceedings against doctors and nurses.

'Under the proposals (clause 17), individuals or organisations (such as the GMC or police) that believe they have a legitimate reason to access protected information can apply to the High Court for an order to have the material disclosed to them. We imagine permission would only be granted in exceptional circumstances; but this is not clear and we are seeking clarification on behalf of our members.

'We are also concerned about clause 19, which gives separate powers to senior coroners to go to the High Court to ask for material from investigations to be disclosed - but it is not specified who they may share the information with. Given the statutory powers senior coroners already have to conduct independent inquests into patient deaths, it is not clear why they cannot use clause 17 to access protected material if necessary, as the GMC and other organisations will have to do.

'In a climate where many doctors are rightly worried about over-investigation of gross negligence manslaughter and where, in the MDU's experience, police referrals are made predominantly by coroners, we think this is a concern for doctors and believe this clause should be removed.'

This guidance was correct at publication 29/10/2019. It is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

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