A new guide has been published, intended to ensure doctors feel “supported to speak out”.
The document, from the General Medical Council (GMC), comes one day after the sentencing of nurse Lucy Letby.
The 33-year-old was handed 14 whole-life orders for murdering seven babies and attempting to murder six others while working in a hospital’s neonatal unit.
The GMC has set out the standards of patient care and professional behaviour expected of all medical professionals.
While the guide’s predecessor, published in 2013, placed a duty on all doctors to raise concerns about patient safety, the updated version emphasises that doctors in leadership and management positions should create a culture in which staff feel safe to speak out about concerns.
Dr Naru Narayanan, president of the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association (HCSA), said whistle-blowers are “treated by bad employers like the problem” and can “find themselves on the receiving end of threats and bullying to remain silent”.
In the Lucy Letby case, it has emerged that doctors raised worries which were rejected by hospital bosses.
A retired doctor who also worked at the Countess of Chester Hospital, Dr John Gibbs, questioned why managers took 11 months to involve police when suspicions were raised.
Dr Ravi Jayaram – a consultant paediatrician at the hospital who gave evidence in Letby’s court case – said there are “things that need to come out about why it took several months from concerns being raised to the top brass before any action was taken to protect babies“.
The new guide has been welcomed by Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, who said it “emphasises how supportive workplaces are essential for patient care as well as clinical staff”.
Among the changes is guidance on sexual harassment, which has been included by the regulator for the first time as part of a “zero tolerance” approach.
It says that doctors “must not act in a sexual way towards colleagues with the effect or purpose of causing offence, embarrassment, humiliation or distress”.
In addition to physical contact, it includes verbal or written comments and displaying or sharing images.
Professor Dame Carrie MacEwen, chairwoman of the GMC, said staff who experience harassment or bullying “must feel supported to speak out”.
She added: “Sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination are entirely unacceptable.
“Where workplace cultures of this kind of behaviour go unchecked, they are detrimental to wellbeing, performance and patient safety.”
Tim Mitchell, president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said: “We need to be creating a work environment where every person feels welcome, safe and protected.
“The GMC’s new standards send a strong message to the profession that these behaviours will not be tolerated.”
However, the Medical Defence Union (MDU) said doctors are “concerned about digesting and implementing new standards”.
The fresh guidance will be implemented from January 2024 after a five-month familiarisation period for staff.