Doctor was suspended on full pay for 12 years

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Medical Correspondent

Senior health service managers who allowed a doctor to be suspended on full pay for almost 12 years have been roundly criticised for wasting more than pounds 600,000 of public money and attempting to conceal the total costs of the case.

The report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) found that "those responsible. . . seemed to find it easier to continue paying out public funds rather than take firm action. . . " over Dr Bridget O'Connell, a consultant paediatrician at King George V Hospital in Ilford, north- east London. Dr O'Connell received almost pounds 440,000 in salary payments during her suspension.

The PAC found it "quite unacceptable" that the eventual settlement last year, authorised by the NHS Executive, included a confidentiality clause covering the costs of the case.

"Such a condition is likely to impede accountability for a serious waste of public money ... We consider that this aspect of the settlement was quite inconsistent with the proper conduct of public business," the report says.

It was a matter for "serious criticism" that the former North East Thames Regional Health Authority failed to confront the problem of how to resolve Dr O'Connell's suspension. It also criticises the Department of Health and the NHS Executive for ignoring health ministers' instructions in 1988 to settle the dispute quickly. It says new guidelines on NHS staff suspensions may not be "sufficiently robust" to prevent such events being repeated.

It was only Dr O'Connell's decision to sue the authority for breach of contract in 1990 that brought one of the longest running NHS disputes to a head. In May 1994, the authority abruptly withdrew all the allegations against her and disciplinary proceedings were halted. She took early retirement but was made an honorary consultant for the region on full pension, and received pounds 154,000 in damages and legal costs. Excluding the authority's legal costs, the total bill was pounds 593,409. Dr O'Connell, 60, now a locum consultant in Ireland, was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Despite the failures of management, neither the NHS Executive or North East Thames took any disciplinary action, the report says. An investigation by the executive is under way.

Dr O'Connell was suspended from King George V Hospital in December 1982. The PAC was told there had been a breakdown in relationships between Dr O'Connell and other staff, which was disrupting patient services. She claimed there were dangerous deficiencies in child care at the hospital, out-of-date and abusive practices, and low staffing levels which were putting lives at risk. The hospital, now part of Redbridge Healthcare, says her claims were without foundation.

A spokesman for North Thames Regional Health Authority (the successor to North East Thames) said it had conducted a full review of the O'Connell case and the findings had been passed to the NHS Executive. The managers blamed by the PAC report were no longer working in the region and most are now retired.

Ken Jarrold, director of human resources for the NHS Executive, said it was "regrettable" that Dr O'Connell's suspension continued for more than 11 years. But the NHS was now better prepared to deal with other cases more effectively.

Under new guidelines introduced in October 1994, suspensions are reviewed after three months by hospital trust boards, and any case not resolved after six months is reported to the NHS Executive.