This doctor is paid pounds 60,000 a year to do nothing

Suspensions cost the NHS dear, writes Roger Dobson
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The Independent Online
IT'S THE start of another day at home for Bernard Charnley. He has some jobs planned around the house and some studying to do, but what he will not be doing is practising his profession.

Once one of the youngest consultant pathologists in the country, he has spent the past four years banned from going to work, suspended from his job. And it is estimated it will soon have cost the NHS nearly pounds 1m in salary and legal fees to keep Dr Charnley away from Prince Charles Hospital at Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales.

Despite four years of wranglings, meetings and investigations he remains suspended on full pay of around pounds 60,000 a year. It could be at least another year before there is a solution.

He has been suspended longer than any of the 14 other NHS consultants whose combined suspensions are believed to have cost the health service around pounds 5m a year in salaries, legal costs and, in most cases, eventual compensation.

Almost exactly four years ago, Dr Charnley was on paternity leave and away from work at the hospital for the birth of his daughter. While he was absent a complaint was made that he had inaccurately reported the results of cervical screening tests, an allegation he denies.

"He was given no chance to comment on what was being said, or point out the many flaws in the allegations, but he was formally suspended," said a friend of Dr Charnley, who is himself not allowed to talk about the case. "At one point he was sacked but then reinstated after the British Medical Association intervened. So keen to keep him out of the hospital were they that the meeting was held in a nearby local health centre.

"Twelve months before he was suspended he had resigned as director of pathology over the lack of resources to maintain standards. He wants to get back to work and get on with the job. It seems to many of us that once NHS managers embark on a suspension they plough on remorselessly regardless of costs."

In the latest step in the proceedings, a panel is sifting through evidence and is due to report some time soon, although any adverse result there would probably simply kick-start another appeal mechanism to the Secretary of State for Wales, which might take at least another year.

The case of Dr Charnley, 45, highlights the huge problems the NHS has in dealing with suspensions of senior doctors.

While many employers, faced with such a situation, use the catch-all, "breakdown of trust" as a reason to get rid of staff and pay out compensation, the NHS have not used that route with consultants, although it has most often had to pay compensation in the end.

"We have a macho management culture who will not set aside a suspension even though only one in six are found to be justified and even though it is costing the NHS valuable resources and wasting people's skills," said Dr Peter Tomlin, secretary of the Society of Clinical Psychiatrists, which looks into the problems of suspended doctors.

"We know of 15 consultants who are currently suspended and from our research we estimate that it is costing around pounds 5m a year. Not only are the suspended consultants getting their full salary, there are the pension costs, legal costs, and the eventual and inevitable compensations. Our experience is that few of these consultants get a fair deal in these endless meetings that go on.

"In the Dr Charnley case I am frankly appalled at what has happened. He is barred from any work and he spends the day thinking about the job he wants to do. I am appalled, too, that it has been allowed to get out of hand despite the promises made by the chief executive of the NHS in 1995 that this kind of thing wouldn't happen again. We estimate it has already cost more than pounds 600,000 and will soon be over pounds 1m, making it the most expensive the NHS has had."

A spokesman for Bro Taf Health Authority, which inherited the suspension from the old Mid-Glamorgan Health Authority, said: "A reserve of pounds 200,000 was earmarked for the cost of dealing with the case. That has been used for legal fees and the expenses of the panel. Dr Charley is receiving full pay.

"The disciplinary hearing against Dr Charnley has still to report. It is inappropriate for any comment to be made."

Another consultant suspended for three months and later exonerated said that those who make unsustainable allegations against doctors should be dismissed. "Surely there should be a substantial penalty, perhaps dismissal, for unsustainable, unnecessary and damaging allegations, especially if the motive for the allegations was believed to have been personal," says the unnamed doctor, writing in the British Medical Journal.

How doctors have betrayed us, Section 2 front