Doctors charged over Shipman 'failings'

Seven doctors are to appear before the General Medical Council (GMC) on charges of serious professional misconduct over alleged failings that allowed Harold Shipman's killing spree to remain undetected for years.

Seven doctors are to appear before the General Medical Council (GMC) on charges of serious professional misconduct over alleged failings that allowed Harold Shipman's killing spree to remain undetected for years.

The doctors, three of whom are still practising in Hyde, Greater Manchester, will be asked to explain why they countersigned 214 cremation forms in which Shipman asserted the deceased had died of "natural causes" and "old age" when 124 of them had been unlawfully killed. One doctor submitted an autopsy report that reached the same conclusion about another patient who, like all the victims, had been injected with a lethal quantity of diamorphine.

The seven GPs were among 10 who were heavily censured in July last year by the Shipman inquiry for failing to question the doctor's unusually high death rates, high numbers of cremation forms and presence at the scene of many deaths - a relatively rare event for most GPs.

The GMC, which is itself expected to be accused of a pro-doctor bias and a failure to protect patients in the inquiry's summing up later this year, has decided to pursue the cases after an investigation launched last September following criticism by Dame Janet Smith, chairman of the inquiry.

The GPs all worked near Shipman in Hyde, Greater Manchester - either at the Clarendon House practice or the Brooke practice, which was adjacent to Shipman's Market Street surgery.

Four of the 10 have already been cleared of poor practice by the GMC but Dr Peter Bennett and Dr Susan Booth (who have both retired), Dr Jeremy Dirckze, Dr Stephen Farrar, Dr Alistair MacGillivray and Dr Rajesh Patel will all appear before the GMC's professional conduct committee next month to face allegations of serious professional misconduct. Dr David Bee, a retired consultant pathologist, will also appear before the committee later this month over alleged failures in relation to his autopsy report on Renate Overton, who died in hospital in April 1995 two months after being given an overdose of diamorphine by Shipman.

The report was described as "deeply flawed" and "lax" by Dame Janet. A further two doctors, Dr Murtaza Husaini and Dr Geraint Brown, are still being investigated by the GMC in relation to the death of Mrs Overton.

Dr Patel said yesterday that he, Dr Dirckze and Dr MacGillivray, who are still practising at the Brooke surgery, were "shocked, stunned and bewildered" by the charges against them. He said: "We have put so much time and effort into helping rebuild the community of Hyde and restoring trust and just feel it's been thrown back in our faces. We have made huge changes to the way we practise since Shipman's arrest and have even advised local authorities on the way forward.

"We have the full backing of our patients and find it surprising that the GMC, which is itself under scrutiny, should feel the need to bring these charges against us."

Shipman, who was found hanged in his prison cell in January, was jailed for killing 15 of his patients, but the inquiry concluded he killed more than 200 others - making him the UK's most prolific serial killer. In most of the cases, he covered his tracks by signing their death certificates and avoiding the involvement of a coroner.

When the body is cremated - as many of Shipman's victims were, removing any chance of proving in court he killed them - a second doctor is required to sign a certificate, a Form C. The signature earned GPs £40 a time, earning the role the name "cash for ashes" within the medical profession.

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