Struck off at last: Richard Neale, 'botcher' gynaecologist

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Richard Neale, the consultant gynaecologist who botched operations on women over more than a decade, was yesterday struck off the medical register by the General Medical Council, which called for a change in the law to protect future patients.

Richard Neale, the consultant gynaecologist who botched operations on women over more than a decade, was yesterday struck off the medical register by the General Medical Council, which called for a change in the law to protect future patients.

Along with Harold Shipman, the GP serial murderer, and Rodney Ledward, another incompetent gynaecologist, Richard Neale will go down in the annals of medical dishonour as one of the worst offenders against the doctor's ethic: "First, do no harm."

Neale left a trail of damaged women across the country, misled patients about the risks, failed to inform their GPs of complications and lied about his qualifications. A disciplinary panel of the General Medical Council concluded that the incompetence, negligence and recklessness shown by the gynaecologist towards 12 women whom he had treated in Britain after returning from Canada in the mid-1980s amounted to serious professional misconduct and that his name should be removed from the register.

Neale, 52, now faces legal action from up to 60 women who are suing for compensation and a police investigation into the deaths of three patients. He is one of the first doctors to be struck off under new rules that prevent him applying to be restored for at least five years. Previously doctors struck off the register were permitted to apply after 11 months.

Former patients welcomed the GMC's verdict but called for a public inquiry into how Neale was allowed to work for so long. Sheila Wright-Hogeland, 49, one of the 12 women who gave evidence against him, said: "The hearing has been very stressful but the GMC's decision was all we'd hoped for. We are delighted and we are hugely and profoundly relieved."

The disciplinary panel had last week found 34 of 35 charges against him proved. In a two-page judgment delivered yesterday, it said that his actions were "deplorable," "dishonest" and "lacked integrity," that he assumed for himself a "degree of expertise and clinical competence that [he] did not have" and that he failed to acknowledge his mistakes or put them right.

Unusually, it directed that he be suspended immediately, pending any appeal, "for the protection of the public".

Neale , who had pleaded before the GMC that his surgical record was not as bad as it had been portrayed, said yesterday his life and career were "in ruins". In a statement issued through his defence society, he said: "My family and I are totally devastated by this decision, the events of recent weeks and the two years it has taken to bring evidence before the GMC.

"I would like to apologise fully and unreservedly to those patients whose cases have been the subject of this hearing. I am very sorry for the physical and psychological suffering they and their families have endured. It is a tragedy not just for them but for me also."

The GMC has come under heavy criticism for allowing Neale to work in Britain for 14 years after he was struck off in Canada in 1985 following the deaths of two patients. Responding to the criticism yesterday, Sir Donald Irvine, president of the GMC, said the case was "shocking and disturbing". Neale should have been stopped sooner, he said, and he had written to Alan Milburn, the health secretary, asking him to act to strengthen the council's powers.

Sir Donald said: "For far too long [Neale] caused unnecessary pain and suffering to many women and showed a determined and alarming lack of insight. He has no place within the medical profession. Yet again one of a tiny minority of bad doctors discredits the excellent work of the vast majority of doctors in this country."

He added: "I cannot defend the GMC procedures, which 15 years ago failed by allowing Neale to practise in this country despite his record in Canada ... The Neale case underlines the need for a change in the law to make it possible for us to take direct action on the basis of disciplinary action overseas."

The failure of NHS procedures at every level to detect poor practice were highlighted when it emerged yesterday that Neale had been made a fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) in 1990, five years after he was struck off the register in Canada. In a statement the college said it had received "no adverse information" about Neale at the time.

Professor Robert Shaw, president of the RCOG, said the college had published proposals for regular checks on consultants in January. He added: "We hope the number of doctors who continue to work when there are concerns regarding poor performance can be reduced significantly."

Neale emigrated to Canada in 1977 after qualifying in London in 1970. He returned from Canada in 1985 after being charged with serious professional misconduct over the deaths of two patients but did not disclose his past. He was given a job by the Yorkshire regional health authority and worked at the Friarage hospital in Northallerton, north Yorkshire for 10 years until 1995.

When the authority later discovered he had been struck off it failed to act. Last week, the Government's chief medical officer, Professor Liam Donaldson, criticised that failure: "I felt a more robust intervention should have been made. I would have taken advice about withdrawing his appointment," he said.

His criticism was echoed yesterday by Sir Donald. "It is difficult to understand why local action on his poor practice was not taken much earlier," he said.

Neale had sought to avert the ultimate disgrace of erasure from the register in a mitigation hearing last week by apologising to the women he had injured and arguing that they represented only 0.14 per cent of the 7,000 patients he had operated on, in the vast majority of cases successfully, and that no one had died.

He said he was an "average surgeon" who "had his faults". He also admitted that there were times when he should have referred patients to other specialists.

"I think it must have been professional pride which stopped me from so doing. I recognise now that pride, at least taken to unreasonable lengths, has no place in today's medicine."

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