Bristol surgeon admits 'question mark' over skills

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The former medical director of the Bristol Royal Infirmary told the public inquiry into the deaths of babies at the hospital that his surgical skills may not have been as good as he thought.

The former medical director of the Bristol Royal Infirmary told the public inquiry into the deaths of babies at the hospital that his surgical skills may not have been as good as he thought.

James Wisheart, the consultant heart surgeon struck off the medical register by the General Medical Council last year for his part in the disaster, said yesterday he was "disappointed" at the way his career ended under a cloud and suggested that there may have been justification for the criticism levelled at him.

Giving his account of events for the first time, Mr Wisheart said: "I think my own view was that I had done my best, but on what appeared to be the figures and judgement at that time there was at least a question mark over whether my skills had been what I hoped they would be."

With the gallery packed with parents of children he had operated on, Mr Wisheart surprised observers by appearing contrite and ready to accept some blame, in contrast to his aloof performance before the GMC two years ago when he was accused of arrogance.

Asked by Brian Langstaff, QC for the inquiry, whether he was proud of his surgical record when he retired in 1998, he replied: "I was, of course, very disappointed at the manner in which my professional career had finished. I felt that my surgical skills had achieved a great deal, but it was clear some aspects of those skills were under criticism. So 'proud' would not be the term I would use."

Explaining why he gave up performing hole-in-the-heart operations in 1994, he said that although he believed the high number of children who died on his operating table during the operation was due to "true and proper" factors, the "anxiety and emotional investment and drain weighed heavily".

Questioned on his performance in adult cardiac surgery, after a review showed his death rate to be four times the national average, he said he had compared his figures with colleagues over the previous two years and no one had questioned his performance. He stopped operating in December 1996 and retired the following March, 24 hours before the review revealing his poor performance was published. He accepted that had he learnt earlier of the problems, he would have stopped sooner. He said he would have appealed against the GMC's decision to strike him off, but he was told he had no chance of success.

Supporters of Mr Wisheart gathered outside the inquiry building after the retired 60-year-old surgeon arrived. He is expected to give evidence for four days. The inquiry is examining almost 1,900 complex paediatric heart operations between 1994 and 1995. The GMC studied the cases of 53 patients, of whom 29 died or suffered brain damage.

The first phase of the inquiry, which began with public hearings in March, ends on Friday. A second phase, examining wider implications for the NHS, opens in the new year.

The inquiry continues today.

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