Starvation case doctor shown mercy

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A FAMILY doctor who ordered nursing home staff to starve a bedridden patient to death escaped being struck off the medical register yesterday despite being found guilty of serious professional misconduct.

In the first mercy killing case of its kind, Dr Ken Taylor was found guilty of instructing nurses to withdraw a high protein food supplement from Mary Ormerod, 85, and to reduce her fluid intake. The General Medical Council (GMC) said he had failed to properly examine the patient before issuing the instruction, ignored the views of nurses and should have sought a second opinion.

However, Dr Taylor, 51, who retired last year because of the stress of the case, had the support of the patient's four daughters, one of whom described him as a "brilliant, brilliant doctor".

The GMC yesterday imposed a six-month suspension from the register saying he had provided "conscientious care for this unfortunate patient" and that there were "enormous difficulties and strain" for those involved in cases of this kind.

The case is likely to trigger renewed soul searching by the medical profession over how to help patients have an easier death. Mrs Ormerod had suffered a series of strokes and, after the withdrawal of her food supplement in June 1995, Dr Taylor expected her to have another stroke which could be fatal. However, she took 58 days to die at the Oxford House Nursing Home, Preston, and was said to have looked "like a victim of Belsen" at the end, weighing 3 stone 12 lbs.

The doctor was opposed by one nurse who later reported him to police. Other staff continued to give the food supplement until supplies ran out.

Police conducted a murder inquiry but the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the case.

In a letter to the GMC, Dr Taylor denied killing Mrs Ormerod and insisted his care was "ethical and appropriate". He said: "I judged that feeding was inappropriate and the time had come to let her slip away. When she did not die within days I was perturbed."

Mrs Ormerod had been bedridden since a major stroke in September 1994. She was fed by oral syringe and communicated with the nurses by squeezing their hands.

The case resembles that against Dr Nigel Cox, a consultant rheumatologist from Hampshire, who was found guilty of serious professional misconduct for giving a lethal injection of potassium chloride to a terminally ill patient in 1992. The patient, Lillian Boyes, 70, was in extreme pain and had begged him to end her life. However, potassium chloride has no therapeutic benefit. Dr Cox was convicted by the High Court of attempted murder.

Despite the conviction, the GMC showed mercy, partly because Dr Cox, like Dr Taylor, had the support of the patient's family. It found him guilty of serious professional misconduct but let him off with a reprimand.

The view of the British Medical Association on medical care at the end of life is that treatment may be withheld where to provide it would extend suffering. However, providing food and drink is regarded as part of basic care and should never be withdrawn. The BMA is to issue guidelines on assisted feeding.