Sunday, 4 September 2011

Is the Chief Medical Officer demonstrating bullying behaviour?

Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer has come out fighting with her first major interview since her appointment in March. She has accused NHS front line workers who do not have a flu jab as ‘selfish’. For good measure, she has thrown in a less than subtle warning that she finds schemes in other countries where health workers are penalised for failing to be vaccinated as ‘interesting’. The UK’s top doctor goes on to blame the ‘chattering classes’ (previously known as ‘the educated middle class’) accusing them of spreading ‘scare stories’ about vaccination.

Mmm – is this a feisty, passionate medic being brave by not pulling her punches for the common good – or an opinionated, bullying boss demonstrating little thought for the individual rights of NHS staff while insulting a large swathe of the population? A bit of both I suspect.

While Dame Sally’s views are laudable and her motives sound, I can’t help feeling she has gone about this in the wrong way.

One of the fundamental errors that NHS executive management, politicians and commentators make is to morph the NHS with the people it employs. I have been guilty of this on many occasions. We refer to the NHS as a living, organic body, with one heart and brain, moving in synch like starlings in mass flight. We must remember that this gargantuan is staffed by over 1.5 million INDIVIDUALS. They are not all Florence Nightingale and neither are they all Attila the Hun. Saints and sinners, heroes and villains, committed and lazy – the NHS employs a cross section of personalities and capabilities. Yes, those who are attracted to the public healthcare sector tend to be on the more caring side of the human spectrum but they still have personal opinions and choice.

One of the better elements about planned NHS reforms is to improve patient choice. Choice – choice to vaccinate their children. Or not. And NHS staff should have the choice. Yes, by all means run a focussed, intelligent and informative education programme to ensure that all sectors of the community, staff and patients alike receive the valuable, and sometimes vital, protection from flu.

Dame Sally’s words feel dangerously like bullying to me. The Oxford Dictionary definition of bullying is ‘a person coercing others by fear’. To call someone who chooses not to have a flu vaccination ‘selfish’ is pretty strong I think. How much better it would have been to say something along the lines of ‘we believe that flu vaccination is vital to protect both staff and patients alike and we strongly urge you all to choose to be vaccinated’. Quiet and non-confrontational peer pressure could come into play as wards, departments and divisions all sign up for the vaccination.

I think it was also pretty harsh of Dame Sally to attack Tony Blair for not clarifying whether his young son Leo had the MMR or not. That is a matter of patient and personal confidentiality.

I think I am going to enjoy following this new CMO’s progress. I wish her well in her new role, but I hope she will temper her approach and tread carefully. The jury is out for now.


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