gekaskr - Fotolia

Nurse 'scared' to return to work after blowing whistle on IT problems

A former nurse felt unable to return to work after raising concerns about the accuracy of records on a patient database at a London NHS trust

A whistleblower who raised serious concerns about a health trust’s patient database claimed she was “scared” to return to work for her previous managers after a period of sickness, caused by work related stress.

Bernie Rochford was employed by the then Southwark Primary Care Trust as a clinical health commissioner. Her concerns about the accuracy of patient records on the trust’s patient management database were eventually treated as a protected disclosure under whistle-blowing rules.

The tribunal heard that managers at Southwark Primary Care Trust – now a clinical commissioning group – believed Rochford was refusing to return to work. 

Rochford, who is claiming compensation for constructive dismissal, claims that she was subject to a campaign of bullying and intimidation.

She told an employment tribunal on September 16 2015: “I was willing to return to work, but I was scared of working with Gwen [Kennedy] and Kate [Moriarty-Baker, head of continuing care and safeguarding]. They are saying I refused to work for them. I never refused, if I refused I would have no job.”

Trust ‘knew about database problems’

Gwen Kennedy, director of commissioning at Southwark, told the tribunal the trust knew about problems with the database before Rochford raised them in April 2011.

“Strategically and operationally we knew what [we] needed to do,” she told the tribunal. “I am not saying Miss Rochford’s contribution was not helpful, I am saying it was very helpful.”

She said it was “simply not true” that work was done to address database problems only as a result of Rochford joining the team.

Bullying allegations denied

Kennedy rejected suggestions from barrister Mark Benney that, whether or not they were acting deliberately, she and Kate Moriarty-Baker were "bullying and intimidating” Rochford.

Kennedy told the tribunal “definitely not”.

Rather, she said she wanted to support Rochford returning to work and getting back to business as normal.

“I was actually very caring towards Miss Rochford,” said Kennedy.

Managers 'wanted to support' whistleblower

Kennedy told the tribunal she had not felt frustrated that Rochford had raised concerns at work.

She explained she had taken “exceptional steps” to get the deadline for a job vacancy extended so that Rochford, who was off sick at the time, could apply for an alternative post in another part of the NHS.

She rejected suggestions that there was a “short time-scale” to apply for the post, which was presented to Rochford over the Christmas holidays. 

“I did not put her under any pressure in applying for it,” said Kennedy.

“There was no pressure for her to take that post.”

The tribunal previously heard Southwark had viewed Rochford's failure to inform her line managers whether she was going to apply for the job as an example of misconduct.

Rochford ‘distressed in meeting’

Under cross-examination, Kennedy rejected barrister Mark Benney’s suggestion that Rochford was “visibly distressed” during a key meeting with her managers. She said instead: “ Rochford became agitated.”

The meeting spent nearly an hour discussing complaints made about Rochford by a colleague, Helen Campbell, a clinical broker, following an alleged disagreement over desk space (see panel, below) and bringing food into work.

Kennedy told the tribunal today that another manager had asked her for advice about complaints by Campbell about Rochford, which he described in an email as “minor”.

Disagreement over desk space turns into misconduct complaint

An incident over colleague’s paperwork “encroaching” on her desk became a misconduct issue, former nurse Bernie Rochford told the employment tribual at an earlier hearing.

Giving evidence in May 2015, Rochford said she had not been aware there was a problem until it was raised by managers three months later.

Her colleague Helen Campbell would joke that her paper was on Rochford’s desk but Rochford told the tribunal it was not an issue.

“The desk is 63 inches. An inch here or there isn’t a problem,” she said.

Managers claimed Rochford was abrupt with Campbell, who was then upset.

However Rochford said that, when she spoke to Campbell about it, Campbell said she was not upset and would not cry about anything “at that place”.

Rochford said she had not been aware it was an issue and thought it was reported to mangers third-hand.

She told the tribunal she had measured the desk when she was told about Campbell’s concerns that Rochford was upset by Campbell’s paperwork encroaching onto the desk.

Barrister Christopher Edwards asked her: “Had you brought in a tape measure to measure your desk?”

Rochford replied: “No, there was a ruler there.”

Kennedy was asked why she did not explain that the issue was viewed as a minor issue during the meeting with Rochford.

She said that she had a duty towards Campbell as a manager and, at the time, it was not known if Campbell – who has not been called to give evidence by either side – would make a formal complaint.

In the end she did not.

Cancelled meetings

Kennedy was also asked about an incident in which Rochford ignored an instruction that managers would arrange an occupational health appointment for Rochford in advance of a sickness review meeting.

Kennedy said she discovered that Rochford had called to cancel the appointment, as it clashed with a pre-arranged GP appointment. She said: “It was not a big issue, she had not followed my instruction.”

The incident was earlier described by Kate Moriarty-Baker as one of a series of examples of misconduct by Rochford – and one that had taken up a significant amount of management time.

Moriarty-Baker said Southwark had chosen to deal with the misconduct issues informally, rather than invoke formal procedures.

"Any one of those could have been dealt with formally, but they were not. They were all dealt with informally," she said.

Whistleblowing was ‘very positive’

Kennedy rejected suggestions that she was “embarrassed” by her lack of understanding about whistleblowing rules. Rather, she told the tribunal: “The organisation has learnt a great deal, so it was very positive.”

The hearing at Croydon employment tribunal centre continues.

Read more on Healthcare and NHS IT