Kate Whiting on the need for safeguards in all healthcare settings to protect the most vulnerable from the determined abuser

In December 2014 Dr Miles Bradbury, a Paediatric Consultant from Addenbrooke’s Hospital, was sentenced to 22 years in prison after being found guilty of sexually abusing young cancer patients within his care.

In April 2015 Andrew Hutchinson, a nurse at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, was jailed for 18 years after being found guilty of sexually abusing unconscious patients in the hospital’s A&E department.

These cases not only caused national outrage, but also served as a stark reminder of how no institution, however well trusted, can be immune from the risk of harbouring individuals who deliberately abuse.

Recent figures show that 400 claims of sexual assault have been made against NHS staff since 2006, and that, even before the Savile litigation, approximately £5.3 million has been paid out by the NHS in compensation to sex abuse victims within the last 20 years.

Whilst in some of these cases the abuse may be opportunistic, there have been cases where the perpetrators have actively sought out positions of trust and authority within institutions, including the NHS.

Survivors of abuse are typically the young, the elderly, or people with a mental health problem who find themselves particularly vulnerable to abuse.

However, in a healthcare setting, where many patients are either physically or mentally incapacitated, and thus at the mercy of those entrusted with their care, there is ample opportunity for abusers to take advantage of a position of power and commit acts of abuse if the appropriate safeguards are not put in place.

Given the amount of trust we - either consciously or unconsciously - place in those caring for us in healthcare settings, the amount of unreported incidents are likely to be extensive, either because the victim did not know, or could not believe, that they were being abused; or because the victim feared that they would not be believed by other individuals or by the institution.

It is for this reason that many organisations who work with abuse survivors, including Leigh Day, are calling for a mandatory reporting duty on all healthcare professionals, to ensure that those who raise suspicions are protected; that gravitas is given to their suspicions; and that appropriate external investigations are undertaken.

We have dealt with cases where colleagues have raised concerns about the behaviour of an individual with the responsible NHS Trust years before an investigation was ever undertaken. A lack of action has left the abuser free to commit horrific acts of abuse.

A duty of mandatory reporting would ensure that the reputation of a respected Consultant or a Trust is not put before the safety of patients.

A compulsory part of a healthcare professional’s education must also be to ensure that they are alert to signs of abuse and report any suspicions immediately.

Another crucial consideration is what support services are offered to survivors of sexual abuse within our healthcare system. Whilst every individual’s response to trauma is different, it is not uncommon for survivors of institutional abuse to experience feelings of powerlessness, helplessness and shame, after being betrayed by a trusted figure. 

The difficulties that this can cause when it comes to accessing psychiatric support cannot be understated, particularly when, in the absence of private health insurance or a successful civil settlement, the support services on offer often come from the very NHS Trust where the individual suffered the abuse.

These shocking cases, combined with the stories that we hear first-hand from our clients, highlight the need for independent, specialist support services for survivors of NHS abuse, whether that be independent therapy supported by the third sector, or through a national fund that all NHS Trusts are required to contribute to. We have already seen the Catholic Church offering to pay for independent therapy and counselling for clerical abuse survivors, even in the absence of an admission of liability.

Without this support, and without a duty of mandatory reporting, there is a real risk that sex offenders will continue to operate without detection, and that abuse within our healthcare system, and against some of society’s most vulnerable people, will remain a reality.