An NHS whistleblower could be sacked after telling the Daily Mail that a hospital was fiddling its death rates.
Sandra Haynes Kirkbright last year told the Daily Mail that she was "headhunted" by her employer, Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust, to "fix" its mortality figures.
Mrs Haynes-Kirkbright claimed that "every rule in the book" was broken to try to improve mortality rates, and alleged that she was suspended from her post as a senior "health coder" after refusing to take part in a cover-up.
The trust rejected the allegations of altering the death rates, calling them an "outrageous slur", and said independently-verified evidence "categorically disproved" her claims.
Its chief executive, David Loughton, said at the time: "Improvements in the hospital's mortality rates have been audited and independently verified."
Haynes-Kirkbright was suspended by the trust after allegations of bullying, harassment, persistent swearing and unprofessional behaviour were made against her by colleagues through their union in April 2012.
Last week she received an email ordering her to attend a disciplinary hearing for leaking information about the trust, the Mail said.
It also warned she could be fired for having spoken out.
In the emailed letter, hospital managers claimed she had "behaved recklessly or negligently in disclosing information regarding the Trust to an external source without the Trust's authorisation to do so", and accused her of breaching employment contracts by speaking to the press.
She was warned "this may result in formal disciplinary action, not excluding dismissal".
The threat raises further questions about protection for whistleblowers following the Mid Staffordshire scandal, in which hundreds of patients are believed to have died because of poor care.
In March last year Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt called for a "culture of openness and transparency" to prevent another case like Mid Staffs.
He said at the time: ''The era of gagging NHS staff from raising their real worries about patient care must come to an end.''
Last night the chairman of the Health Select Committee, Tory MP Stephen Dorrell warned that hospitals trying to sack whisteblowers could face action.
He told the Mail: "If it can be shown information has been disclosed in the public interest then any attempt to take disciplinary action against that person should prompt action against the hospital by NHS management."
Mrs Haynes Kirkbright, a data expert, repeatedly raised concerns with her superiors at Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust about the manipulation of hospital death rates – a key indicator of poor patient care. They ignored her.
Exasperated, and fearing for patient safety, she approached this newspaper with her claims, which were published in a front-page article of overwhelming public interest last March.
But, as we reveal today, the response of the Trust machine – worried about its ‘reputation’ – was ruthless and chilling.
First, she was put under investigation for the Stalinist charge of having ‘recklessly or negligently expressed her opinions’.
Now the 50-year-old is facing the sack and the loss of her ‘whole career’.
Let her case serve as a timely reminder to Mr Hunt that identifying how Labour allowed a culture of secrecy and cover-ups to take root in the NHS is not the same as curing it.
If more patients are not to suffer appalling and needless deaths, he must give whistleblowers like Mrs Haynes Kirkbright the protection their courage deserves.