Professor 'covered up for incompetent surgeon'

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Indy Lifestyle Online

An eminent obstetrician accused of helping to cover up one of the worst cases of medical malpractice in a generation has appeared before the General Medical Council (GMC) charged with serious professional misconduct. Professor James Owen Drife, 58, of the University of Leeds medical school and a former vice-president of the Royal College of Obstetricians, was charged with providing misleading references for a colleague, Richard Neale, in 1995 and 1996, and of later trying to block a complaint against him in 2000 made to the GMC, of which Professor Drife was a member.

The case raises new questions about the capacity of the GMC to police the profession. Mr Neale, a consultant gynaecologist at the Friarage Hospital, Northallerton, North Yorkshire, was struck off the UK medical register on 23 August 2000 after being found guilty of botching operations on 11 women that left them in constant pain, incontinent or unable to bear children, and of giving misleading information to two other women.

The GMC missed an early opportunity to stop Mr Neale, when it failed to act after he was struck off the medical register in Canada in 1984 following the deaths of two patients - an omission for which it later apologised. Yesterday, a member of the council appeared before the council's own disciplinary panel accused of trying to bury a complaint about the same doctor 16 years later.

During Mr Neale's 14-year career in the UK, from 1985 when he returned from Canada until 1999, he left a trail of damaged women across the country. One of the worst aspects of the scandal was that, once the Friarage hospital discovered in 1995 that Mr Neale was incompetent and a menace to his patients, the hospital authorities did not sack him but instead provided him with a good reference in order to move him off their patch, and a £100,000 pay-off.

Mr Neale subsequently got jobs at hospitals in Leicester, the Isle of Wight and London, injuring many more women, before he was finally stopped in 1999.

An inquiry into the scandal published by John Reid, former Secretary of State for Health, last year found that Professor Drife had given an oral reference which helped Mr Neale get a job at Leicester Royal Infirmary in 1995 and later provided a written reference which was "instrumental" in getting Mr Neale a job at St Mary's hospital on the Isle of Wight in 1996.

At yesterday's hearing before the GMC in Manchester, the disciplinary panel was told that in both references Professor Drife failed to mention that Mr Neale had been formally cautioned by police in 1991 over an incident in a public lavatory involving two other men. The references also presented Mr Neale in "a more favourable personal light than was justified", the panel heard. In one reference he mentioned an "embarrassing personal incident" but gave no details. In the second reference he said he had "no reservations at all about [Mr Neale's] suitability as a consultant".

Professor Drife was at the time a member of the GMC and acted as a "medical screener", assessing complaints about doctors and deciding whether they should go forward to the next stage. In April 2000, the disciplinary panel was told, he rejected a complaint against Mr Neale without telling the GMC that he knew him.

Professor Drife admitted providing two references for Mr Neale but denied failing to mention his police caution and painting him in a "more favourable light". He also admitted considering the complaint submitted to the GMC but denied that by not mentioning his knowledge of Mr Neale he had compromised the "fairness and transparency" of the council.

If found guilty, Professor Drife could be struck off the medical register. The hearing continues.