Whistleblowers 'key' role in highlighting out-of-hours GP service failures
1:50pm Thursday 7th March 2013 in News
Whistleblowers played a significant role in highlighting concerns about the out-of-hours GP service in Cornwall, a report by the National Audit Office has found.
The reports states that whistleblowers' concerns had not been identified by routine management controls or by the primary care trust itself.
And while Serco had a whistleblowing policy, evidence suggests that whistleblowers were still fearful of raising concerns. Serco and the primary care trust have since reminded all staff of the importance of raising concerns and the protection available to whistleblowers.
The National Audit Office looked into the service following a request from the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee.
Among the concerns raised was that Serco had been unable to fill shifts with appropriately qualified staff, with the result that the out-of-hours service was unsafe.
A clinical review of the service in June 2012 found no evidence that the service was, or had been, systematically clinically unsafe.
During 2012 Serco regularly had insufficient staff to fill all clinical shifts. It also frequently redeployed some GPs, taking them out of the cars available for home visits and using them to cover clinic shifts instead.
In July 2012, the Care Quality Commission reported that the out-of-hours service did not have enough qualified, skilled and experienced staff to meet people's needs. When it inspected the service again in December 2012 the Commission found that, although the number of clinical staff had increased, Serco needed to take further action because there were not enough health advisers who handle incoming calls.
The National Audit Office said that Serco has not consistently met the national quality requirements for out-of-hours services set by the Department of Health. Performance against the requirements declined significantly following the introduction in May 2012 of NHS Pathways, as required by the primary care trust, a new system for assessing patients' needs when they call the service.
It added Serco has since taken steps in response to the problems, including using more clinical staff to support the health advisers handling calls, and performance is now recovering.
Whistleblowers raised concerns that Serco staff were altering data about the performance of the out-of-hours service. A forensic audit by Serco, covering every interaction which passed through the switchboard between January and June 2012, found that two members of staff made 252 unauthorised changes to performance data. This represented 0.2 per cent of all interactions with patients during the six-month period.
As a result of the data changes, the performance Serco reported to the primary care trust was overstated in seven instances. Serco and the primary care trust have since taken steps to strengthen internal controls aimed at preventing or detecting data changes.
A joint statement from NHS Kernow and NHS Cornwall and Isles of Scilly, said: “We welcome this comprehensive report from the NAO into concerns relating to the provision of the out of hours service provided by Serco, particularly the commitment to ensuring whistleblowers feel protected and able to contact us with confidence in future.
“We will review all of the recommendations and ensure these are built in to how we monitor the contract to reinforce the quality standards set out nationally and locally for this service.
“We recognise the need to ensure that safe staffing levels are maintained within this service going forward, recognising that providers have the responsibility for their staffing levels. Our role is to ensure providers’ services meet all key performance indicators and national quality requirements. We are working with Serco to ensure all actions within the NAO report are addressed.”