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Fitness-to-practise inquiries 'making nurses feel suicidal'

Some nurses feel 'suicidal' when they are summoned to a fitness-to-practise disciplinary inquiry, it has been claimed. Photo: Getty

Some nurses feel "suicidal" when they are summoned to a fitness-to-practise disciplinary inquiry, it has been claimed.

They experience "sheer fear", Edward Mathews, director of regulation and social policy at the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO), told the Oireachtas health committee yesterday.

INMO president Martina Harkin Kelly said nurses were in favour of proposed laws to underpin 'open disclosure', where staff speak directly to patients and families when someone is harmed, but they were concerned about the risk of losing their licence and livelihood.

They could end up facing a public inquiry with difficult, pervasive and at times toxic media coverage, she warned.

Appearing before the committee along with doctors' and patients' groups, the nurses' body commented on the legislation, which comes in the wake of controversies in recent years where members of the public had to go to great lengths to uncover the truth about what had happened.

Nurses want the legislation to state that a "disclosure by a health service provider does not constitute an express or implied admission of unprofessional conduct, carelessness or incompetence".

"I have seen how the stress of getting a letter from the Nursing and Midwifery Board about a fitness hearing can leave a nurse feeling suicidal," warned Edward Matthews.

Dr Tom Ryan, president of the Irish Hospital Consultants Association (IHCA), said it welcomed provisions in the legislation stating an apology made in connection with an allegation of clinical negligence would not constitute or imply an admission of fault or liability.

The apology will "not be admissible in any associated court proceedings". However, Dr Ryan said there remained a concern it would increase the number of negligence claims brought to court.

Most errors are due to systems failure rather than individual mistakes, he added.

Dr John Duddy, of the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO), told the committee that it also supported open disclosure.

"Open disclosure is stressful and time consuming. Often it can take some time to establish the facts, there may be differences in opinion or a breakdown in communication," Dr Duddy said.

Stephen McMahon, of the Irish Patients Association, warned that "self preservation is one of our most basic instincts". The only way to get more accountability in the health service was through the introduction of mandatory open disclosure, he added.

A spokesman for the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland, which regulates nurses and carries out professional conduct inquiries, said it was aware of how stressful it was for a nurse to be the subject of a complaint or a witness.

However, he said "steps are in place to recognise this" and the board "always tries to be considerate of this stress, especially if a nurse or midwife is unrepresented legally or by their union".

This can include deferring an inquiry in cases of extreme anxiety and if there are serious health issues it may be held in private.

He added that such inquiries were set down in law and were important to ensure there was full confidence in staff.

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