• The Role of Healthcare Whistleblowers

    Healthcare professionals who raise concerns about workplace safety or other problems should be praised as heroes and agents for positive and essential change. Instead, some whistleblowers have faced retaliation for speaking out, and the incidence of retaliation cases against these employees has spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    So writes CRNA Nicolle O’Neill in this recent essay in which she cites statistics from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a subdivision of the US Department of Labor, which show that whistleblower complaints have increased steadily during the pandemic. Over 4,600 complaints were being filed each day as of February 2021, up from 700 daily in April 2020.

    The big chill

    Many of these complainants have been punished for speaking out against acts they feel are a safety risk, such as not providing sufficient personal protective equipment, or are unethical, like hospitals that initially told their frontline healthcare providers that simple face masks offered sufficient protection because, O’Neill argues, the institutions did not have enough of the more protective N95 masks. O’Neill believes these kinds of actions result in a chilling effect on two fronts. “By terminating or censoring the whistleblower, a healthcare entity punishes the employee as a troublemaker and simultaneously intimidates other employees,” she writes.

    But this insidious silence, which stems from the fact that the average person is too intimidated by the potential consequences to speak up, extends beyond the individual, observes O’Neill. In the literature, social scientists have described a phenomenon called “the bystander effect” in which the more people who witness an incident, the less likely any of them are to intervene, often assuming that someone else will do something about the situation. So often, she notes, this is how, over time, institutional dysfunction becomes an accepted part of an organization’s culture, essentially normalizing the problems.

    Crisis demands communication

    The irony, she asserts, is that it is precisely in a time of crisis that creative thinking and open communication become most essential. And that teamwork and great ideas emerge when the very catastrophe sparks a common fight towards a shared, lofty goal. “This is a time when healthcare organizations can make a choice to support their employees’ creativity rather than turning them into mindless followers,” she writes.

    Advocates, not adversaries

    Most healthcare whistleblowers’ actions stem from altruism, not contention, according to O’Neill.  In honestly hoping to improve a situation, those willing to “tell truth to power” put both their personal and professional prospects on the line. It’s often only when institutions, legislatures, and/or government bureaucracies fail to address and rectify issues that whistleblowers feel compelled to take their grievances public