A surgeon who raised patient safety concerns at a Teesside hospital trust has been awarded £431,768 after an employment tribunal previously found he had been racially discriminated against and faced unfair treatment.

The sum awarded to Dr Manuf Kassem, an associate specialist surgeon at North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust, included loss of earnings, injury to feelings and general damages and followed a remedy hearing.

Dr Kassem, who is originally from Iraq, had expressed concerns in a grievance in June 2017 that he had been bullied and prejudiced against and went on to allege that 25 patients had “suffered complications, negligence, delayed treatment and avoidable deaths”, regarded as a so-called protected disclosure for which he was subject to detriment.

The trust reviewed the cases and others highlighted by Dr Kassem and was satisfied that appropriate processes were followed with no failings in care identified.

Darlington and Stockton Times: The North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust has hospitals in Stockton and HartlepoolThe North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust has hospitals in Stockton and Hartlepool (Image: NHS)

He was subsequently removed from an on-call emergency rota with a senior member of staff revealing his identity as a whistleblower, including to other doctors about whom he had raised concerns, breaching his confidentiality.

In September 2018 he was made subject to disciplinary proceedings, which prompted an investigation lasting 17 months, following several allegations made against him by colleagues, none of which were formally upheld and which the tribunal panel found to be “not particularly weighty”. 

Dr Kassem later brought a number of complaints against the hospital trust, triggering an employment tribunal which heard representations from both sides in September 2020 and went on to deliberate over several sittings until January of the following year.

Employment judge Trevor Morris criticised the “inordinate amount” of time the trust investigation had taken, describing it as a “breach of good industrial relations practice”.

Meanwhile, examples were given in the tribunal’s findings where “the focus of the [investigation] team appears to have been upon identifying evidence that supported the allegations that had been made against the claimant and did not approach its task with an open mind including seeking to identify any potential evidence that might exculpate the claimant”.

Judge Morris also said the trust had breached its own policy by not instigating informal discussions first before formal disciplinary action was taken, with Dr Kassem being treated differently from others in this regard, and the investigation amounted to race discrimination.

He referred to an “intimidating and hostile environment” for him created by a clinical director and his dignity being violated, while his claim he had been harassed was well-founded.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Dr Manuf Kassem pictured in 2017Dr Manuf Kassem pictured in 2017 (Image: NHS)

At a surgical morbidity and mortality meeting in which Dr Kassem delivered a presentation, he was said to have been interrupted repeatedly, his actions strongly criticised and at one point told he did not care about his patient and that his performance was substandard.

Referring to Dr Kassem’s suspension from the on-call rota, which was deemed necessary to prevent any potential patient safety risks, Judge Morris said the tribunal found this surprising, particularly in view of the fact that there were considered to be no issues with him undertaking private medical work elsewhere, as well as being on registrar rota duty at another NHS trust.

Dr Kassem, who it is understood continues to be employed by the trust, had claimed in his evidence to the tribunal that he had been shouted at, insulted and subject to degrading remarks by a senior member of staff, including in a meeting called to discuss a proposed new job plan for him and threatened with the loss of his job if he did not accept.

He said the treatment of staff was different “if you are white or from India” and he was “treated less favourably because I am from Iraq”.

The surgeon referred to a Turkish surgeon who had received treatment similar to him, a doctor from Pakistan who had put a complaint in about how she had been treated and a colleague from Nigeria who was also shouted at.

Dr Kassem, who has been described as “caring”, “kind” and a “gentleman” by former patients and first took up post with the trust in 2002, made further claims of victimisation and an alleged unauthorised deduction of wages - however, these were not upheld.

There was said to be no challenge from the tribunal panel to the claimant’s evidence that he had no patient complaints, claims, serious incidents or serious complications reported against him throughout his employment.

In a statement, a spokesman for the North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust said it had acknowledged the tribunal panel findings and carried out a detailed review of its actions including “lessons learned”.

He said: “This included the appointment of a dedicated employee relations investigations team. 

“The trust also follows the just and restorative culture guidance issued by NHS England which underpins workforce policies.  

“Several reviews in respect of the clinical case allegations, including a comprehensive external investigation have also been carried out.”