Six family doctors 'ignored alarm bells' alerting them to Shipman's murder spree

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Six family doctors were accused yesterday of ignoring warning signs that could have halted Dr Harold Shipman's 23-year murder spree long before he was caught.

Six family doctors were accused yesterday of ignoring warning signs that could have halted Dr Harold Shipman's 23-year murder spree long before he was caught.

The six GPs, from Hyde in Greater Manchester, signed 214 cremation forms for the serial killer's patients over 18 years, but 124 of the patients were later ruled to have been unlawfully killed.

The six were yesterday charged with serious professional misconduct by the General Medical Council, the doctors' disciplinary body, for failing to carry out proper checks before counter-signing the forms.

Drs Peter Bennett, Jeremy Dirckze, Stephen Farrar, Alastair MacGillivray and Rajesh Patel appeared before the Professional Conduct Committee of the GMC in Manchester. The sixth GP, Susan Booth, who has since retired, did not attend the hearing.

They all worked near Shipman in Hyde, either at the Clarendon House practice or the Brooke practice, which was next door to Shipman's Market Street surgery. The doctors each deny a charge of serious professional misconduct.

They were criticised by Dame Janet Smith, chairwoman of the Shipman inquiry, for failing to question the high number of deaths and the frequency with which Shipman was present at the time the deaths occurred ­ a rare event for most GPs.

However, Dame Janet also said in her report last year: "I do not think it would be fair to suggest that the Brooke practice doctors should have appreciated the significance of the different factors before they did."

The GMC heard yesterday how dozens of bodies were released for cremation after the doctors countersigned Shipman's cremation forms when the death should have been investigated by a coroner.

Nigel Grundy, for the GMC, said all the deaths in the case were sudden or unexpected and had unusual circumstances. He said: "In each case we submit the alarm bells should have been ringing and they ought to have done something about it ­ either report it to the coroner, police or the GMC."

The death certification system requires an independent doctor to sign the cremation certificate, known as Form C, to provide a check on the information provided in Form B, which is filled in by the patient's own GP.

Mr Grundy said the six doctors should have spotted inconsistencies in the forms filled in by Shipman and should have noted the "extraordinary coincidence" of the circumstances surrounding the deaths, but they failed to do so.

"For these reasons we submit the Form C should not have been signed. At the very very least [they should have] reviewed the Form B of Dr Shipman's with particular care thereafter."

Mr Grundy described the case of 80-year-old Ethel Bennett, who died in 1988. Shipman gave her cause of death as "bronchopneumonia" on Form B of the death certificate, which was countersigned on Form C by Dr Bennett (no relation).

According to Shipman, Miss Bennett had suffered from bronchopneumonia for only a few hours before she died. He certified she had been in a coma, yet a neighbour had heard her moving about shortly before her death.

Shipman murdered at least 215 patients over 23 years by administering overdoses of the painkilling drug morphine, making him Britain's most prolific serial killer. He was jailed for life in 2000 on 15 counts of murder but was found hanged in his cell at Wakefield prison in January this year. The case continues.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES TO CATCH A KILLER

By Jeremy Laurance

1. Peter Bennett countersigned a cremation form for Ethel Bennett (no relation) on 20 December 1988. Shipman certified time of death as 16.00, written over as 14.00, and said he had attended her for six hours. He went on to say he had seen her at 13.00.

2. Susan Booth countersigned a cremation form for Margaret Vickers on 26 June 1996. Shipman described her sudden death from a stroke while he was present but did not mention resuscitation attempts.

3. Jeremy Dirckze countersigned a cremation form for Erla Copeland on 12 January 1996. Shipman recorded the patient died alone but gave the cause as "syncope" (sudden fall in blood pressure) lasting seconds.

4. Stephen Farrar countersigned a cremation form for Mary Winterbottom on 24 September 1984. The patient had a heart attack just as Shipman arrived at her house and she died in his presence, but no questions were asked about the unusual coincidence.

5. Alastair MacGillivray countersigned a cremation form for Elsie Dean on 9 January 1997. Shipman gave the time of death as 03.00 and said she had been in a coma for six to nine hours, but could not have known either fact.

6. Rajesh Patel countersigned a cremation form for Marjorie Waller on 22 April 1996. Shipman said she collapsed from bronchopneumonia in minutes but it is not a sudden illness. He made no attempt to admit her to hospital.

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