Prosecuting doctors attacked as 'sinister'

Prescription for change: Profession is alarmed at threat of criminal charges and demands a clearer definition of its role
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Public Policy Editor

The British Medical Association yesterday attacked a "sinister trend" in which it is claimed that doctors are facing an increased risk of criminal charges, including manslaughter, when patients die in unusual circumstances.

The Crown Prosecution Service has recently considered or is still considering proceedings against five doctors, and last year it unsuccessfully prosecuted an obstetrician for unlawfully procuring an abortion when he removed a foetus, during a hysterectomy, without the patient's consent.

Dr Sandy Macara, chairman of the council of the BMA, said: "I do not think professional people doing their job should face criminal proceedings when mistakes occur." In some cases, he added, the "law is an utter ass" and there appeared to be a "sinister change occurring in the legal environment in which doctors have to operate".

He was not, he said, seeking immunity from prosecution for doctors. But if criminal proceedings became more common it would have big implications for doctors' relations with their patients and for defensive medicine. Doctors would not risk some procedures and would over-order X-rays and other tests to protect themselves.

Cases at present with the CPS or recently considered include that of May Ormerod, aged 85, who allegedly starved to death after her GP stopped a food supplement at a nursing home in Preston. Carole Burwash, 53, died after allegedly being given a painkiller at 10 times the dose prescribed for her, following a hysterectomy at Middlesex Hospital. A decision is also pending over Stephen Hext, a psychiatric patient who jumped from a multi-storey car park after treatment at the Edith Morgan Centre in Torbay.

A fourth case involved Ann Pritchard, who was admitted to the Derbyshire Royal Infirmary after a drug overdose but who died after she went into a diabetic coma, and a fifth was that of Alexandra McConnell, aged 9, who died in the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, after contracting chicken pox which she proved unable to resist because of steroid therapy for an eye infection.

In the last two cases, the CPS yesterday said there was insufficient evidence to proceed.

A spokeswoman, however, denied there had been any change of policy or that it was "seeking out" cases for prosecution. Doctors, however, could not be given blanket immunity."Families have the right to have cases properly investigated and put to the CPS. If there is sufficient evidence of wrongdoing and it is in the public interest we will prosecute."