These failures reflect badly on the medical profession

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The Independent Online

Important lessons emerge from the tragedy of the Staffordshire hospital experiment that went so horribly wrong, in which many premature babies tragically died.

The Griffiths inquiry, whose conclusions were published yesterday, rightly notes that there should be much better monitoring of medical research projects. Under the current system, projects can be approved, almost on the nod, by committees that scarcely have time to focus on the projects that they are being asked to approve. Crucially, there is little control of a project once it is under way. David Southall, professor of paediatrics at Keele University, and Martin Samuels, a consultant paediatrician at North Staffordshire Hospital Trust - who were suspended last December over separate allegations about alleged harassment of parents with regard to child protection - were allowed to do almost whatever they wanted, with no questions asked.

Above all, it is crucial that parents should give informed consent for any experiments that take place. The key word is "informed", for it is clear that there was no such consent. The parents of premature babies, already stressed because of what they had gone through, were offered no real opportunity to consider whether or not they wished the new form of ventilator - still in its experimental stages - to be used. Many parents who signed consent forms had no idea of what they had said yes to, or that they had been asked to make any choice at all. Worst of all, some consent forms may have been forged.

In other words, we are back to the doctor-as-God question, which has been at the heart of so many medical problems of recent years. Intelligent advice is clearly worthwhile. Patients will often need help in making up their minds. But doctors still too often treat their patients not just as ignorant (which is true enough: we remain uninformed until somebody chooses to inform us), but also as mindless.

There is too much eagerness, also, for the medical establishment to wash its hands of all the problems that occur. Once again, the inquiry that issued its damning conclusions yesterday - accompanied by separate investigations by the General Medical Council and the police - was set up only after unhappy parents took the problems to their local MP, who raised the issues. The North Staffordshire Hospital should have taken a more active role in pursuing the complaints. Its failure reflects badly on the medical profession itself.