Top doctors hit back at 'witch-hunt' inquiries

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Senior doctors are launching a fightback today against the wave of criticism of the profession over the last two years.

Senior doctors are launching a fightback today against the wave of criticism of the profession over the last two years.

In a devastating critique of a government inquiry into an experimental treatment on premature babies, doctors claim that researchers involved were unfairly scapegoated.

The findings of the Griffiths review into allegations of research misconduct at a North Staffordshire hospital, published in May, were so fundamentally flawed that the review should be retracted by the National Health Service executive and its recommendations reassessed, they say in the British Medical Journal.

The research, led by David Southall, a consultant paediatrician, involved the use of a new ventilator for premature babies. After more babies died in the experimental group than in the control group some parents complained that they were victims of a scandal because they were never told about the experimental nature of the treatment nor gave their consent.

The authors of the BMJ article, Sir Iain Chalmers, director of the Cochrane Centre and one of the country's foremost experts on research conduct, and Edmund Hey, a retired paediatrician, conclude, however, that there was nothing wrong with the arrangements for obtaining consent, the trial was well designed and the researchers were unjustly criticised.

"We can still agree there has been a scandal but suspect that the scandal is what has been done to, not what was done by, the medical and nursing staff in Stoke-on-Trent," they say.

The Royal College of Paediatrics has also today put its weight behind Professor Southall, who took the brunt of the criticism. The professor, who has been suspended by the North Staffordshire Trust since December, is still under investigation by the trust and the General Medical Council.

The president of the college, David Hall, said the weaknesses exposed in the Griffiths review demonstrated the "vital" need for such inquiries to be rigorous and fair. "We will be pressing for more resources so that we can have more faith in the findings of future inquiries," Professor Hall said.

The unprecedented charge against the Griffiths review marks the start of a rearguard action by a profession which feels besieged by government, public and press since the Bristol heart babies case in 1998. A clutch of inquiries are underway which many doctors feel are unfairly loaded against them.

In a leading article in the BMJ, its editor, Dr Richard Smith, says inquiries have become a way of life in the NHS with reports awaited on the removal of organs from children; on Harold Shipman, the GP and serial murderer; and on the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) scandal.

"The aim of these inquiries often seems to be confused - and perhaps their real purpose is to divert the heat from politicians," he writes.

Other inquiries which have been criticised include one into the Ashworth high-security mental hospital - described as a "witch-hunt" by one senior forensic psychiatrist - and the BSE inquiry, due for publication next month, which was delayed by the need to deal with "potential criticism, clarification and conflicts of evidence".

The Griffiths review, chaired by Rod Griffiths, director of public health in the West Midlands, was set up in February 1999 and its report was published in May.

Health department officials are known to have had strong reservations about the quality of the report and demanded extensive rewriting, which delayed its release.

In today's BMJ, Sir Iain and Dr Hey, who carried out their review for the Medical Defence Union, which is representing Professor Southall, say: "Almost every statement about the design, conduct, and reporting of the... trial in the Griffiths report was ill-informed, misguided or factually wrong."

In response, Professor Griffiths and colleagues from the review accuse their critics of having "entirely misunderstood the terms of reference and the main thrust" of the report.