Surgeon at NHS hospital promoted despite allegedly assaulting staff

<span>The latest allegations come after a police investigation into deaths and patient harm at Royal Sussex County hospital in Brighton.</span><span>Photograph: Simon Dack News/Alamy</span>
The latest allegations come after a police investigation into deaths and patient harm at Royal Sussex County hospital in Brighton.Photograph: Simon Dack News/Alamy

Managers at a hospital where police are investigating dozens of deaths promoted a consultant surgeon months after they allegedly assaulted junior doctors during surgery, the Guardian can reveal.

Two female registrars at the University Hospitals Sussex NHS trust in Brighton sent written statements to the trust’s chief medical officer in March 2022 detailing how they were allegedly assaulted by the surgeon in separate incidents as they helped to operate on patients, leaked documents reveal.

The incidents were not reported to the police and are not part of a separate Sussex police investigation into allegations of medical negligence and cover-up at the trust’s surgery and neurosurgery departments, involving at least 40 deaths and more than 60 incidents of patient harm.

Related: ‘Culture of fear’ at Sussex hospitals trust, Royal College of Surgeons reports

The consultant surgeon was alleged to have slapped one of the registrars across her face with the back of a hand. The other registrar claimed she was slapped on the hand and had surgical instruments snatched from her by the same person.

The trust said its investigation found the surgeon’s actions were inappropriate but did not constitute assault and were taken in the interest of patient safety. The surgeon apologised to the registrars.

The investigation concluded that, in the first incident, the registrar’s visor was blocking the consultant’s field of vision during surgery, causing them to instinctively push the visor away. In the second incident, it concluded that an instrument was taken from the registrar’s hand during a procedure for patient safety purposes.

After these events, other registrars threatened to refuse to go into theatre with the consultant and pointed to other alleged examples of their bullying, sources claim. They had expected the consultant to be disciplined, given time off work and supported in changing their behaviour, the sources added. Instead, within a year of the complaints, the consultant was given a leadership role in the surgery department, despite the trust’s stated policy of zero tolerance for violence and aggression.

One of the registrars said: “[The consultant] kept shouting at me throughout four or five hours of surgery. I was holding an instrument and [they] slapped me on the hand and was very rude. [They] wouldn’t let me do anything. When I was holding the laparoscopic, [they] snatched it away from me. Luckily, another registrar was there who saw everything, so it was well documented.

“I didn’t walk out of surgery, because I know that it would cause a patient safety issue. But once it was over, I broke down in tears. I was crying so much, I had to take the next day off. Even talking now I still feel the trauma.”

She said it was her first NHS job in the UK and that as she was dependent on the trust for a visa, she did not want to complain to the police: “It was disheartening when they were promoted [the consultant]. [They] should have been suspended because [they] knew [they] had made a mistake.”

One clinician employed by the trust at the time said: “[The consultant] appeared to be rewarded for bad behaviour. It was back-breaking for morale when [they were] promoted and unfair on the registrars after the way [they] behaved towards them.”

Another said: ‘The management brushed the [alleged] assaults under the carpet. And they then made [the consultant] clinical lead for [a surgical specialism]. This is how Brighton worked – they’ll get some dirt on you, and then they’ll make you a leader so that you can be the ‘yes’ person. You can’t go against them, because if you do, they’ll dig up all this stuff in your past.”

A third said: “The promotion afterwards was appalling, because after [the second incident] we all said we won’t scrub and operate with [the consultant], so it was disappointing that [the consultant] became a lead after being accused of bullying.”

Minutes of a surgery faculty group meeting said the alleged assaults were first raised in March 2022, when “bullying, abuse and safety issues within general surgery” were discussed. At the group’s next meeting in June, it was confirmed that the “registrars who were [allegedly] assaulted” had given statements on the incident to the hospital’s chief medical officer, but there were no further updates. At the meeting it was agreed to escalate concerns to two other managers at the trust.

A damning review of the department by the Royal College of Surgeons, published in February this year, highlighted a “culture of fear” in the surgery department. It said: “The review team were particularly concerned to hear reports of two trainees [registrars] being physically assaulted by a consultant surgeon in theatre during surgery.”

It did not mention that the consultant involved was later promoted.

A former member of staff said the surgeon in question was hardworking and under intense pressure. They said: “It is a hard department to work in and from every perspective there is not enough support from the management. It is total chaos – everything in the department is dysfunctional. I’ve worked in many of the hospitals, and no other was this bad. I was appalled by what was going on. This doesn’t even happen in hospitals in developing countries.

“The registrars were very angry about how it was handled. We thought [the consultant] would probably get some help. [Allegedly] assaulting people were the extreme incidents, but [the consultant] was difficult in all theatres. Something should have been done to say this is not all right.”

In a statement, the trust said: “An investigation was carried out at the time, which found that the surgeon acted in the interests of patient safety, for example moving a visor because it was blocking their line of sight. The investigation also found these actions were inappropriate in the circumstances but did not constitute an assault.

“The surgeon involved recognised the distress their actions caused, apologised to the colleagues affected and subsequently completed external training to build interpersonal skills in high-pressure situations.

“Their recent appointment to another leadership position within the service was made through a fair and open internal selection process.”