Alleged forging of GP records may have to be investigated

High Court asked to overturn watchdog’s refusal to examine doctors’ treatment of boy who died in 1990
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The Independent Online

A judge will be asked this week to overturn a medical watchdog’s refusal to investigate the alleged forging of medical records relating to the death of a 10-year-old boy.

On Tuesday, the charity Action against Medical Accidents (AvMA) will seek a judicial review of the General Medical Council’s refusal to look into the actions of several doctors involved in the treatment of Robbie Powell, who died of Addison’s disease in April 1990.

The decision is being watched by politicians, patients’ groups and medical experts. A ruling against the medical body could lead to an overhaul in the way the GMC handles such cases.

The organisation is already under pressure amid concern that it has failed to learn the lessons of an inquiry into its failure to detect or prevent the GP Harold Shipman murdering more than 215 of his patients.

Robbie, who lived in Ystradgynlais, near Swansea, became ill in December 1989 and Addison’s disease was suspected. But a crucial test to confirm this was not carried out. In the month of his death, he was seen seven times by five doctors who all failed to realise how ill he was. He died shortly after arriving at hospital on 17 April.

In 1996, the health authority admitted liability for the boy’s death, after his father, Will Powell, took legal action, and £80,000 was paid into the court. But the Powell family never saw the money, and legal arguments continued. An inquest wasn’t opened until 2000, which, four years, later ruled that Robbie died of “natural causes aggravated by neglect”, with medical experts criticising his treatment.

Despite Mr Powell’s suspicions that his son’s medical records had been tampered with, a police investigation – later found to have been incompetent – cleared the doctors of any wrong-doing. A reinvestigation by another force later suggested that one doctor could be charged with manslaughter and all five with forgery and/or conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

But in 2003, the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to prosecute, partly because of an assurance the doctors had received that they would not face charges, which was given after the first botched investigation.

Last year, the GMC announced it would not investigate the case as Mr Powell had made a formal complaint in 2003, beyond a five-year time limit.

AvMA will ask the High Court in London to overrule the decision. It also maintains that the GMC, which was aware of the case within five years, wrongly applied its own rule and should exercise its discretion to waive the time limit in the public interest.

Peter Walsh, AvMA chief executive, said: “If their decision is upheld, it effectively creates a “liars’ charter” whereby a tiny minority of dishonest doctors, who manage to prevent their cover-ups being formally reported to the GMC for over five years, will not be held to account... This case suggests the concern expressed by the Shipman inquiry and elsewhere – that they are more interested in protecting doctors than the public interest – may well still be well founded.”

Mr Powell, 55, who still lives in Ystradgynlais with his wife Diane, said that he would carry on fighting for justice until he died. The GMC and the Ystradgynlais group practice both said that it would be inappropriate to comment.