A heart surgeon has won a six-figure payout from the health board that sacked him after claiming he was unfairly dismissed for being an NHS whistleblower.
Consultant cardiac surgeon Peter O’Keefe, 52, who went on to become an Uber driver was accused of bullying colleagues at one of Britain’s top teaching hospitals.
He was sacked from his £95,000-a-year job at the University Hospital of Wales after being found guilty of misconduct in the workplace, and now earns around £12,000 in his new career with the taxi app.
But Dr O’Keefe took Cardiff & Vale University Health Board to court for unfair dismissal, and claims they wasted £1m of taxpayers’ money by unfairly sacking him.
Peter O’Keefe, 52, was accused of bullying colleagues at one of Britain’s top teaching hospitals and was fired
Dr O’Keefe earned £12,000 in his first year as an Uber driver, a significant drop from his old £95,000 salary
An out-of-court settlement was reached on the day an Employment Tribunal was about to start.
Dr O’Keefe said: ‘It’s a bitter-sweet outcome for me.
‘It’s an enormous relief not to have the pressure any more, but this has gone on so long and I can’t go back to medicine. I’ve tried to get work but I’m the wrong side of 50.
‘I came to the conclusion that the best thing was to give myself a job, so I’ve become an Uber driver, and I’m loving it.’
The health board had recommended Dr O’Keefe for a National Clinical Excellence Award in 2011 – just months before suspending him from the University Hospital of Wales for alleged bullying.
Dr O’Keefe had been recommended for a National Clinical Excellence Award in 2011 – just months before he was suspended
It was claimed up to 40 colleagues came forward to complain about his behaviour at the 1,000 bed hospital in Cardiff.
Dr O’Keefe felt he was being victimised for raising the alarm about a patient left in a ‘vegetative state’ after becoming disconnected from a ventilator for more than 10 minutes.
An investigation of the patient’s treatment identified more than 20 safety failings.
Other doctors on the surgical wards thought Dr O’Keefe’s career was ended prematurely because of his management style.
At the time of his suspension a friend of the consultant’s said: ‘The allegations against him had nothing to do with his clinical competence as a surgeon.
‘He is a forceful and assertive character. It can be very stressful in an operating theatre, and some people have taken exception to his manner.
‘Ten years ago perhaps people wouldn’t have made anything of it.
‘A lot of people did make complaints against him, but there was a degree of rounding-up that went on, and some were more keen on complaining than others.’
After three years suspended on full pay the father-of-four was sacked in 2015.
The General Medical Council investigated and took no action but Dr O’Keefe’s suspension went on for so long he was unable to retain his licence to practice medicine.
He said: ‘I can no longer work as a doctor which is the only work I have known since I was 22. ‘My mental health has suffered also.
‘When I was working I was a resilient, dynamic, mentally agile individual undertaking a demanding job, but was doing what I had always wanted to do.
Despite his substantially lower income, Dr O’Keefe is enjoying his new career as an Uber driver
Dr O’Keefe reached an out-of-court settlement on the day an employment tribunal was about to start
‘I was diagnosed with anxiety straight after being suspended, I haven’t slept properly ever since.’
The out-of-court settlement has a confidentiality clause preventing either party discussing its terms.
It is believed to be a six-figure sum but not enough for the doctor to give up work – he still has two children in full-time education.
Dr O’Keefe said: ‘I had to do something and the opportunity of driving an Uber came up – it meant I could be my own boss.
‘I got my licence on August 1 and I’m enjoying it, I’ve met some interesting people and had some interesting conversations.’
The date is significant – it was 20 years to the day that he started work as a houseman in London and 16 years to the day that he became a cardiothoracic surgeon at the University Hospital of Wales.
Dr O’Keefe said: ‘The reality is that driving a cab is not what I would have wished for myself.
‘But after five years it’s difficult to demonstrate to the GMC that you still have the knowledge and skills.
‘I miss meeting patients and their families and I miss the surgery a lot.
‘But I don’t miss the conflicts, the pressures and the atmosphere of working in the NHS – it is such an unpleasant place to work.
‘I’m still in touch with colleagues and it sounds awful – a bit of me would not want to go back.’
Dr O’Keefe hopes to earn £12,000 in his first year as an Uber driver – a huge drop from the £95,000 he was earning as a surgeon.
He said: ‘I’m enjoying it – you never know who is coming through the door when you pick people up.
Mr O’Keefe worked as a cardiothoracic surgeon at the University Hospital of Wales (pictured) for more than a decade
‘I had one fare who was the son of a lady I had operated on 10 years ago. He was not 100 certain it was me because I was driving an Uber.
‘When he realised he became quite emotional and said I’d given his family 10 years with his mum they would not have had otherwise.
‘He said he could never thank me enough but I told him: ‘You just have.’
A spokesman for the Cardiff and Vale University Health Board said: ‘The settlement which has now been reached in the Tribunal proceedings is on the express basis that the Health Board has not admitted any liability in respect of any of Mr O’Keefe’s claims.
‘Instead, the settlement was reached on the basis of the saving to the Health Board of both legal costs and clinical/management time which would otherwise have been incurred during the Employment Tribunal hearing.
‘The agreed settlement figure reflects those savings and is very substantially less than the amount sought by Mr O’Keefe.
‘The Health Board considers this to be a very satisfactory and favourable outcome, saving considerable clinical and staffing time and costs.’