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September 1, 2010

Dr Phil’s Private Eye Column, Issue 1270 September 1

A solicitor writes…

MD has received a disturbing e mail Huw Morgan, a Medical Protection Society solicitor representing a pathologist who has given evidence to the University Hospitals Bristol (UHB) Pathology Inquiry: ‘It has been alleged that it was he who provided you and/or Private Eye with the information regarding such services which appeared in the 2009 issue(s) of that magazine, shortly before the Inquiry was set up. This is not the case; however he is concerned that such any such mistaken belief on the part of Panel members might be an adverse factor in their assessment of the evidence which he has given to them.’

MD has never had any contact with the pathologist, and the public money used to fund the Inquiry (£464,000 to the end of June 2010) would be better spent focusing on the specific allegations of misdiagnosis in specialist adult and paediatric pathology. Equally important is to ascertain whether appropriate action was taken to investigate the allegations. Concerns about the lack of specialist paediatric pathologists date back to 2001: ‘Over the next 2 years paediatric work was done by adult pathologists with disastrous results, particularly in the fields of childrens’ cancers and Hirschsprung disease.’ An overseas paediatric pathologist was appointed but he was reported to the GMC and removed his name form the medical register in 2004 to avoid investigation.

Allegations about the misreporting of specialist adult pathology were first raised in 2004, and NHS Bristol, the lead commissioner for UHB, has known about concerns at least since October 2007. Detailed allegations were put in writing ‘through the correct channels’ in 2007 and 2008, and the Royal College of Pathologists were aware of them long before the inquiry prompted by the Eye’s exposure in June 2009. UHB is a Foundation Trust, largely divorced from central control and supposedly accountable to its patients. It has ordered and paid for its own inquiry, agreed the terms and the statistical analysis and controls how much of the final report enters the public domain. This story is as much a failure of management as of pathology. In the 15 months since the first Eye column, UHB’s chief executive has resigned, the medical director and head of pathology have found jobs elsewhere and the report seems delayed by an ill-advised hunt for the Eye’s source.

Oxford critics beware…

In 2004, a public health specialist wrote a paper published in the British Medical Journal1 which suggested on the basis of an analysis of administrative data that Oxford had high mortality for paediatric cardiac surgery. Well before publication, two letters were sent to the Radcliffe Infirmary giving details of the results, and a reply from the Medical Director of the Trust did not dispute the figures. After publication, 16 doctors from the Oxford unit wrote to the GMC, disputing the figures and asking whether the author had ‘acted unprofessionally in bringing potentially very harmful information into the public domain in this manner.’ The author underwent a very stressful 4 month investigation, before the GMC decided that the publication of a scientific article in a major peer reviewed journal did not amount to a malicious or unfounded criticism of colleagues. Child heart surgery in Oxford is now suspended following the latest independent analysis which revealed long-standing cultural and management problems, and that ‘between 2000 and 2008, 9 deaths occurred in children undergoing less common procedures, 5.29 times the expected death rate.’ This was before a new surgeon arrived in 2009 and suffered four deaths in fifteen operations (4.8 times the expected death rate). (see Eye 1268) The authors are doubtless awaiting their letters from the GMC…..

1 BMJ 2004;329:825-9