• Heart surgeon’s suspension overturned in High Court interim order
  • Judge says trust could not show suspension was ‘necessary’
  • Judgement does not preclude further disciplinary action against surgeon
  • Surgeon alleges she has been victimised after raising safety concerns

A leading heart surgeon who says she is a whistleblower is expected to return to work, after the High Court overturned her trust’s decision to suspend her. 

The court in London today granted an interim injunction over Professor Marjan Jahangiri’s suspension by St George’s University Hospital Foundation Trust.

She was initially suspended on 9 August. This exclusion was extended last week, and a second decision to suspend her was made on 24 August and sent to her legal team an hour before her hearing last week asking for the injunction.

Professor Jahangiri is a prominent member of the trust’s cardiac surgery unit, and its only female surgeon. The unit has been subject to concerns about culture and quality for some years, including triggering mortality alerts in recent years. The professor has raised concerns about management and safety, and alleges this has led to her being victimised.

The judge said it was strongly arguable that the suspension decisions were wrong, so he would grant an interim injunction order. 

However, he was also clear the decision had been made only on the evidence before him, rather than having examined full evidence in trial. He made no prejudgement on ongoing disciplinary procedures against Professor Jahangiri and gave no view as to whether the decision to suspend the professor was part of a “witch-hunt” and in response to her raising concerns about safety and management.

This case is bound up in several ongoing internal and external reviews and investigations into conduct at the unit.

An external review in July reported a toxic and dysfunctional atmosphere and warned the trust could lose the service if it did not deal with the problems quickly. A subsequent external review, the Hollywood review, was then launched to find out urgently whether “it is possible to have trust and confidence in the cardiac surgical consultant team… to deliver a safe and sustainable service”.

Professor Jahangiri was suspended by the acting clinical director, Professor Andrew Rhodes, after she tried to speak to a colleague who had made a complaint about her behaviour in March, which the trust was investigating as possible misconduct.

Contested accounts

She said she tried to contact this colleague in relation to that complaint - specifically because she had learnt the trust had decided not to call the colleague as a witness at the hearing into the incident in March.

Despite Professor Jahangir and her lawyer telling Professor Rhodes what they held to be the real reason for trying to speak to the colleague, he decided that in fact it had been a bid to interfere with the Hollywood review of the heart surgery unit as a whole. This was something he had expressly told the team not to do.

But the decision to exclude Professor Jahangiri was made before Professor Rhodes had received a clear account of what happened between Professor Jahangiri and the colleague.

This earned criticism from the judge who said the evidence from Professor Rhodes was “most unsatisfactory”. The trust’s chief executive, Jaqueline Totterdell, also submitted evidence, which was also criticised by the judge.

She was on leave when the decision to suspend was taken but says she was in contact with the trust through and “wholeheartedly supported the decision”. Her submission failed to explain her role in the process, or what she had been told by her colleagues, and was “wholly inadequate” the judge said.

The judge said the trust had failed to show that any of the decisions to suspend Professor Jahangiri were “necessary” and had only assessed whether they were “appropriate”. This is contrary to policy, and there is a public interest in ensuring doctors are only excluded from work when it is truly necessary, the judge added.

Professor Jahangiri’s evidence to the court made it clear she believes she has been the victim of a concerted campaign against her because she is a successful woman, she is “Persian”, and because she raised serious concerns about the unit and the trust.

She said in 2017 she received an anonymous package to her home containing “a dead animal and decapitated doll” which she “strongly suspects” were sent in retaliation for raising concerns using whistle-blower protection policies.

A trust spokeswoman told HSJ it “plans to see Marjan Jahangir as soon as the order is signed, which should be tomorrow” when it will discuss with her when she will return to work.

Ms Totterdell, St George’s chief executive, said the trust was “disappointed by the judgment issued today, but understand and respect it”.

“The ruling was about procedure and not a finding on the serious underlying issues or facts which we have a duty to investigate,” she continued. The trust will “continue the investigation to ensure that patient safety, staff wellbeing and NHS resources are protected and accountable”.