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Archive - Month: March 2012

March 27, 2012

Medicine Balls, Private Eye, Issue 1310
Filed under: Private Eye — Dr. Phil @ 8:59 am

Justice for Debbie Westwick

In July 2006, Debbie Westwick, a 43 year old nurse, was diagnosed with cancer of her left breast. She was treated at the Kent & Canterbury Hospital, where she worked, by oncologist  Howard Smedley and surgeon David Jackson. Unbeknown to her, Dr Smedley was subject to ‘supervision undertakings’  imposed by the GMC for reasons that they refuse to reveal. Mr Jackson was suspended in the middle of her treatment, subsequently sacked and referred to the GMC.

Westwick had surgery, (a lumpectomy, with lymph node sampling), in July 2006. The histology revealed 4 out of 7 nodes sampled were cancerous and that there was tumour left behind in two of the margins of the breast wound. She needed an urgent mastectomy and node removal but instead was given chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Debbie realised she needed more urgent surgery but her surgeon was now suspended and mastectomy and reconstructive surgery were delayed until September 2007. There were four fundamental failings in her treatment, all of which breached national guidelines: performing a lumpectomy rather than a mastectomy for a multi focal tumour; not removing the breast when the initial surgery failed to fully remove the cancer; not clearing the axilla of lymph nodes; giving radiotherapy when a mastectomy was indicated.  The GMC was supervising Dr Smedley so why wasn’t this picked up?

Debbie took legal action in 2009 and the trust settled for £155,000 without responding to the allegations. Westwick knew her time could be limited – she now has metastatic disease and is terminally ill – and was far more interested in understanding how her care could have failed so badly despite clear national guidelines in treating and auditing breast cancer care. Had other patients received substandard care? And why hadn’t the NHS and regulators acted promptly to protect patients from avoidable harm – particularly given that Smedley and Jackson were on the GMC radar?

Prompt is not a word to feature much in the NHS complaints’ procedures or the GMC and CQC lexicons. Stage one complaints were lodged in May 2009, but a review of whether East Kent trust  breached regulations in cancer care and held adequate multi-disciplinary team meetings to pick up and act on serious failures has yet to be published.  Westwick complained to the GMC about Dr Smedley on 7th August 2009. After expert review, case papers were served in July 2010. In November,  the investigation was halted for reasons which could not be revealed. Nor could any indication be given of when the investigation might recommence. In June 2011 Dr Smedley was referred for a public hearing by a Fitness to Practice Panel. In August 2011, the hearing was listed to start on 5th March 2012. No details could be given of the charges until 28 days before the hearing.

In September 2011 the GMC approached Debbie to interview her as a witness. Unfortunately this coincided with her cancer returning. By the time she was fit to proceed, as of November 2011, Dr Smedley had applied for voluntary erasure. This was refused in January and a hearing was set for March 2012. The GMC then applied for a postponement as there was not enough time to investigate and serve the charges. Debbie complained about not being consulted and was told the GMC had no duty to do so as she is not a party to the proceedings. The GMC has now listed the hearing for 7 June – over 3 years since the original complaint. There is no guarantee that it will go ahead or that Debbie Westwick will still be alive if it does. But at least the care she now receives at Kent and Canterbury hospital is competent and compassionate.

Meanwhile, Mr Jackson’s GMC proceedings, (unrelated to Debbie’s case), have still not been heard. He faces 75 charges relating to his treatment of 16 patients between 1989 and 2007. In response to the Eye, the GMC said ‘Our procedures are designed to protect patients by making sure we stop unsafe doctors from practising.’ But suspending and striking off doctors, often years after patient harm has occurred and in such a secretive manner, is of no help in understanding how poor care can be allowed to carry on for so long unchecked, and it’s no help to harmed patients. If the Mid Staffs Inquiry does nothing else, it must ensure the NHS complaints system and regulators serve patients rather than destroy them.

March 9, 2012

Medicine Balls, Private Eye, Issue 1309
Filed under: Private Eye — Dr. Phil @ 9:01 am

After the Bill

Health secretary Andrew Lansley gave a surprisingly chipper performance at the Nuffield Trust Summit on February 29. The audience of health policy experts was divided as to whether he was demob happy or just convinced that his Health Bill will be voted through by May 9th, despite the final twitchings of the Lib Dem corpse. Lansley had the confidence of a man who’s brought his own power point slides, a luxury rarely afforded to him on Newsnight, and he proceeded to drown the opposition in detail. He is truly the health secretary who knows the most and listens the least.

Very few policy experts felt the legislation was necessary and many felt it would be counterproductive, imposing yet more bureaucracy from the centre. This view was echoed by the board of NHS Tower Hamlets Clinical Commissioning Group, who have written to the Prime Minister and asked him to withdraw the Health and Social Care Bill. The government has already ignored the objections of 27 professional bodies, but this CCG is lead by Dr Sam Everington, an innovative GP who was Lansley’s special guest at the Conservative Spring conference in 2010 and who’s practice in Bromley by Bow was Lansley’s venue of choice for his first major speech as Health Secretary on 8 June 2010.

Everington, a former adviser to Robin Cook, is bang on the money: ‘Your rolling restructuring of the NHS compromises our ability to focus on what really counts – improving quality of services for patients, and ensuring value for money during a period of financial restraint. We care deeply about the patients that we see every day and we believe the improvements we all want to see in the NHS can be achieved without the bureaucracy generated by the Bill. Your government has interpreted our commitment to our patients as support for the bill. It is not.’

Lansley’s stock response – to patients, policy experts or staff having to enact his reforms – is that they misunderstand them and that everything will be marvellous. So while other European countries are commissioning on a large scale to drive strategy and keep costs down, and letting clinical staff concentrate on treating patients, Lansley is passing the buck for buying NHS services to small CCGs, largely lead by workaholic GPs who have little or no commissioning experience. But hey, it’s only £60 billion of public money.

After the Bill, the NHS will still be facing a huge budget crunch with hospitals desperately short of cash but trying to fiddle the figures and hide the scandals because they’re obliged to become Foundation Trusts. There will still be artificial divisions between community, hospital and social care, and huge variations in the quality of care in all three. There will still be an epidemic of obesity, alcoholism, mental illness and chronic diseases. And the Francis report into the Mid Staffordshire scandal (due in May or June) will make hundreds of recommendations for NHS reform and how we care for the elderly that may directly contradict the Health Bill.

As one GP put it: ‘Faced with all these pressures, our CCG is fast turning into Animal Farm. The Napoleons on the board won’t let one GP practice innovate and expand if it’s seen to take business away from other practices. If you do something off your own bat, you’re castigated for ‘not going through the correct channels.’ It’s no different from being under the cosh of the PCT. We have some GPs who are frankly dangerous and out of date, but no one is tackling that issue for fear of upsetting them.’

MD’s guess is that, after the Bill, GPs will pretty soon tire of commissioning and it will move back to the centre. The best hope for the NHS is for hospitals to join forces with community services and provide a joined up service for a large population, with excellent public health. Once services are integrated, they can compete for business if they must, but competition requires extra capacity and there’s precious little of that in the NHS. As Lansley himself said in opening his speech: ‘Coming back to speak to you is a triumph of optimism over experience.’ The same can be said for his Bill.


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