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‘Culture of fear’ at hospital where junior surgeons assaulted, report finds

A surgeon physically assaulted two trainees at a Brighton hospital during an operation, a fresh report has revealed.

A review by the Royal College of Surgeons discovered instances of bullying and harassment at the Royal Sussex County Hospital, and a further “culture of fear” regarding the top leadership team.

Bosses at University Hospitals Sussex NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the hospital, commissioned the investigation into its surgery services which took place in May 2023.

The Royal College of Surgeons flagged serious concerns between surgical staff and the trust’s senior leadership and said whistleblowers were poorly treated, such as by being bullied or subjected to disciplinary action.

They said: “There were concerning reports of bullying by members of the executive leadership team, with instances of confrontational meetings with individual consultant surgeons, when they were told to “sit down, shut up and listen”, with no ability to express their own concerns, and where they were alone and outnumbered.

“It was apparent to the review team that there was a feeling of relative hopelessness within the general surgery department and it was clear that these reputational and cultural issues had affected the morale of many passionate and committed members of staff, some of whom had worked in the trust for 20-30 years.”

The team also discovered a “dysfunctional” team working within the general surgery department and surgical teams, and were told consultant surgeons were “dismissive and disrespectful” towards other staff.

They added: “Reports of negative culture and behaviours within the general surgery department and wider trust was of concern to the review team.

The Royal Sussex County Hospital, Eastern Road, Brighton, Sussex (Jonathan Brady/PA)
The report comes as Sussex Police detectives are investigating the deaths of around 40 people at the Royal Sussex County Hospital due to allegations of medical negligence (Jonathan Brady/PA)

“It is imperative that robust action is taken to tackle unacceptable behaviours, given the reports of bullying, harassment and physical abuse.”

Major concerns were also raised over high cancellations of planned surgery for patients, often on the day and after patients had been waiting up to seven hours without eating or drinking ahead of their operation.

They added: “The review team heard about patients being cancelled multiple times and this was causing patients psychological distress.”

The findings come as Sussex Police detectives are investigating the deaths of around 40 people at the Royal Sussex County Hospital due to allegations of medical negligence.

The claims relate to concerns over neurosurgery and general surgery between 2015 and 2021.

In the conclusions from the Royal College of Surgeons, it said the team found staff who were interviewed in their probe “extremely engaged, open and helpful”, adding: “Within the constraints of current challenges they were facing, it was clear that staff worked very hard to offer the best possible service for their patients.”

The appointment of the chief of surgery was also highlighted as a positive step, with the new boss described as attentive and responsive when staff escalated concerns.

The trust’s chief executive Dr George Findlay said he asked for this independent report because of the “huge challenges” the surgery teams have faced over many years and that all trust staff are focused on improving care.

Dr Findlay said: “Since last May when the review took place, major changes have begun – we have invested in extra staff and are recruiting now, we are seeking more theatre and bed capacity, and we have approved the opening of a Surgical Assessment Unit.

“The reviewers also noted the open attitude of staff and good local leadership – essential ingredients for a good service.

“Long-term problems cannot be solved overnight but significant strides are now being made. We all want to further improve patient care, so the job of building a stronger structure around the team, and stronger relationships, remains an absolute priority.”

The report, which was published on January 17, is set to be discussed by the trust’s board of directors on February 8.