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HealthApril 26, 2021

Whistleblowers in healthcare: Recognizing their importance during COVID-19

By: Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN
In 2019, Chinese ophthalmologist Dr. Li Wenliang sounded the alarm about the emergence of the Sars-CoV-2 virus and Covid-19.

While Chinese authorities were angered, Dr. Wenliang was hailed as a whistleblower after sharing his concerns with other healthcare providers. Ultimately, Dr. Wenliang contracted Covid-19 and died in early 2020.

Whistleblowers have often been labeled as troublemakers, especially if they take their concerns to the general public, which, in many cases, occurs as a last resort solution. However, it is the opinion of an author published in Nursing2021 that whistleblowers in healthcare should be viewed as heroes.

Retaliations against and protections for healthcare whistleblowers

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports over 4,600 whistleblower complaints were being filed every day as of February 2021. This reflects a dramatic increase — in April 2020, complaints averaged around 700 daily. The Whistleblowing International Network also reports a growing number of complaints filed as healthcare workers advocate for save working conditions amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.

Some countries do not have any whistleblower protection rights in place, such as China, India, and Poland. And while the United States did implement the Whistleblower Protection Act in 1989, the Whistleblowing International Network continues to report growing retaliation cases in the country. Nursing staff members around the country have been fired or threatened with termination after fighting for safe working conditions.

The American Academy of Emergency Medicine has apparently received hundreds of calls from healthcare workers fearing termination if they complained about unsafe working conditions, such as the lack of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). And many workers have been punished for speaking out against certain acts they may believe are unethical or pose a legitimate safety risk.

Using the pandemic to improve whistleblower support

But crises are prime opportunities for creative thinking and open communication among healthcare professionals. The author notes that healthcare organizations can use the current pandemic to better support their employees’ creativity in solving problems rather than encouraging a “mindless follower” attitude.

It is also important that whistleblowers have secure methods of voicing their concerns, such as institutional hotlines, complaints filed with OSHA, or even workplace retaliation claims in federal court. Federal legislation to protect whistleblowers has been proposed, but to date, no actual laws have been enacted to further whistleblower protections.

Whistleblowers are very aware of the risks they take when exposing problems within their organizations. However, these complaints are often based on strong moral grounds and professional integrity. The author hopes that, one day, whistleblowers will be viewed as changemakers and heroes instead of troublesome employees.

Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN
Freelance Health and Medical Content Writer, Wolters Kluwer Health
Sarah has over nine years’ experience in various clinical areas, including surgery, endocrinology, family practice, and pharmaceuticals. She began writing professionally in 2016 as a way to use her medical knowledge beyond the bedside to help educate and inform healthcare consumers and providers.
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