Action on Elder Abuse has condemned a Nursing and Midwifery Council decision to bar a nurse who went undercover for the BBC to expose the parlous conditions facing older patients at a hospital in Brighton in 2004-5.
The charity’s chief executive, Gary FitzGerald, said Margaret Haywood’s actions for a 2005 Panorama programme, Undercover Nurse, had a “clear and overriding public interest”.
An NMC conduct panel found Haywood guilty of misconduct on the grounds of breaching patient confidentiality by covertly filming the care of patients at the Royal Sussex County Hospital.
The edition of Panorama broadcast scenes of terminally ill patients in excruciating pain because their drugs were not being administered properly; others had to wait lengthy periods to go to the toilet because nurses failed to respond to their calls.
Haywood, who admitted breaching confidentiality, said disclosing cases of patients in these conditions without their consent was in the public interest.
However, the NMC panel ruled that, although conditions on the wards were “dreadful”, breaching patient confidentiality could only be justified if it was essential to protect patients from the risk of significant harm.
It concluded that other avenues to improve services had not been exhausted. These included making representations to senior managers or external watchdogs.
But FitzGerald said: “If, as the NMC [panel] would have us believe, it is possible for nurses to safely speak out about the abuse and neglect they witness taking place in elderly care wards, I have to ask them why none of the other nurses in the Royal Sussex had successfully done so?”
Action on Elder Abuse, which has been in contact with Haywood throughout the process, is calling for an independent inquiry into the quality of NHS care provided to older people.
FitzGerald added: “This situation has continued for too long. The complaints system regularly fails to provide satisfaction when matters of concern are raised, and nurses are too often frightened to whistleblow on practices that are blatantly abusive.”