Suspended doctor returns to work

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The Independent Online
A HOSPITAL consultant who has been paid pounds 250,000 over the last four and a half years to do nothing was told yesterday that he could go back to work.

Dr Bernard Charnley, a consultant pathologist who was head of the cervical screening service at Prince Charles Hospital, Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, until his suspension in November 1994, signed an agreement with the trust ending the disciplinary action against him. He is to take up a post at the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff.

Dr Charnley, 46, had been suspended longer than any other consultant in the National Health Service in a case that is estimated to have cost at least pounds 500,000 in salaries and legal fees. He was suspended while on paternity leave over allegations of errors in the screening of cervical smears.

Last July, Bro Taf Health Authority admitted that mistakes had been made in assessing the results of cervical cancer smear tests on 14 women, two of whom had since died. The smears had been classified as less severe than they were, which had led to delays in treatment.

The errors had come to light during an audit conducted in 1994, after the appointment of a new senior technician, but the women were not told until much later. Dr Charnley, as head of the department, was suspended and a separate inquiry conducted into his role.

That inquiry, headed by Angus Nichol QC, is still incomplete. In April, Mr Nichol promised to complete his report, which at that stage ran to 175 pages, by 4 June. It was based on 2,000 pages of evidence and 1,000 accompanying documents, but will not now be published.

Mr Nichol complained to the North Glamorgan NHS trust, which runs Prince of Wales hospital, about damage that occurred to 2,000 cervical smear slides. It is unclear whether the destruction of the slides had anything to do with the trust's decision to settle the case.

In a brief statement yesterday, the trust said that it had reached agreement with Dr Charnley that the disciplinary process against him would be discontinued on the basis that he would not return to the Prince of Wales hospital. "He is to undergo 18 months' secondment at a hospital in Cardiff. Both parties believe the agreement avoids any further extension of the dispute between them," it said. The statement left unclear what Dr Charnley would do after his 18-month secondment. He was not available for comment yesterday.

The case has highlighted shortcomings in the present system for suspending consultants, which are estimated to be costing the NHS at least pounds 10m a year. Results of a review of the system are to be presented to ministers shortly.

The group monitoring consultant suspensions says that the number of such cases has grown to 40 to 50 a year compared with fewer than a dozen a decade ago. So far 33 have been suspended this year, according to Dr Peter Tomlin, secretary of the monitoring group, who said it had been "open season" on consultants ever since the Bristol babies heart disaster.