GP gave sleeping pills to suicidal patient

By Lucy Collins,Pa
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:35

A GP who gave sleeping pills to an elderly patient so she could kill herself was suspended from practising medicine for six months today.

Dr Iain Kerr, 61, prescribed 30 sodium amytal pills to the former businesswoman in 1998 after she told him she had considered suicide.

The General Medical Council found that the Glasgow GP's fitness to practise was impaired by virtue of his misconduct and branded his actions "inappropriate, irresponsible, liable to bring the profession into disrepute and not in your patient's best interest".

The GMC Fitness to Practise Panel found the doctor's misconduct focused on four key areas.

They found he prescribed the retired businesswoman, known as Patient A, with sodium amytal "solely for the purpose of ending her life" and practised poor clinical management after she took an overdose of a different drug.

The panel also found he prescribed sodium amytal without adequate reason and contrary to guidance, and that he failed to make adequate notes.

Dr Kerr said he gave Patient A the sleeping pills as an "insurance policy".

He told the hearing in Manchester: "She said 'Give me something that I can take if things get too bad' and I said yes."

Suzanne Goddard QC, counsel for the GMC, said what Dr Kerr did was "akin to handing her a noose with which to hang herself at a time of her choosing".

Patient A later disposed of the sleeping tablets because she did not want to get him into trouble after learning he was being investigated by health chiefs for his views on assisted suicide.

Patient A was an osteoporosis sufferer who loved playing bridge and attending family events but feared becoming a burden upon her family, the GMC heard.

Her son told the GMC she was strong-minded and had a high regard for Dr Kerr.

He said she was aghast at witnessing the deterioration and death of her sister from bone cancer.

Dr Kerr said Patient A had "firm views about how she wanted her life to end" and wanted to maintain control over what happened to her.

She made an advance statement in which she expressed her desire not to be resuscitated if she became gravely ill, the GMC heard.

Patient A killed herself in December 2005, aged 87, using a cocktail of Temazepam, antihistamines and painkillers.

The GMC heard she made a failed suicide attempt two weeks earlier using Temazepam but was not referred to hospital by Dr Kerr.

His decision to prescribe her more Temazepam three days later was branded "illogical" by John Donnelly, chairman of the GMC Fitness to Practise Panel.

The panel found Dr Kerr had not failed to take adequate measures to dissuade her from suicide.

Mr Donnelly said: "Patient A was an elderly lady who made her end-of-life wishes quite clear, in that she did not want to become a burden upon her family. The panel found that she was determined to end her own life."

Dr Kerr, who had a surgery at the Williamwood Medical Centre in Clarkston, Glasgow, for 30 years, prescribed sodium amytal pills to five other patients, despite the fact that four of them did not suffer from insomnia.

Medical guidelines stated that the powerful sleeping pills should be used to treat only "severe and intractable insomnia".

The five patients were four women aged 75, 76, 72 and 61, and a man aged 73.

One of the women suffered from depression, another was terminally ill, another had heart problems and the man had a drink problem.

Dr Kerr acted inappropriately by not making a record of why he prescribed sodium amytal pills to four patients and for poor record-keeping in relation to a fifth patient, the GMC found.

The doctor was investigated by local health authorities after saying during an appraisal in 2004 that his "achievements" included helping patients at the end of their lives.

He admitted he prescribed patients sodium amytal to help them kill themselves and would continue to do so "under the right circumstances".

Dr Kerr also told psychiatrist Dr Alexander Cooper, to whom he referred Patient A three months before her death: "Some years ago she discussed suicide with me and I've been in the habit of supplying her with barbiturate tablets which would assist her in her endeavour."

Strathclyde Police investigated him but took no action after finding there was "insufficient evidence".

Dr Kerr told patients he was a member of the Euthanasia Society to give them the opportunity to discuss "end of life matters".

The doctor, who is married to a nurse and has three children, one a doctor, said he was once a member of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society of Scotland.

He quoted Charles Dickens in branding the law an ass and said the law of the land was out of step "with what a significant minority of people think".

He told the GMC: "I think when dealing with someone holding a rational view of the circumstances in which they want to end their life, it was my duty to at least consider whether he or she had a reasonable opinion and that it was my duty to assist if I thought I agreed with that patient's assessment."

He also said his concern was for the wellbeing of his patients who had placed their trust in him.

There is no legislation in Scotland on suicide. Those who assist another to commit or attempt suicide are usually charged with culpable homicide.

The Suicide Act 1961, which prohibits assisting suicide, applies only in England and Wales.

Mr Donnelly outlined the sanctions Dr Kerr faces.

He said: "The panel is of the opinion that you allowed your views in respect of physician-assisted suicide to influence your treatment of patient A. You made a serious misjudgment and embarked on a potentially criminal act."

He continued: "It is an important task of the panel to maintain public confidence in the profession and to uphold proper standards of conduct.

"This case is serious and it is necessary in the public interest to mark the panel's disapproval of your behaviour.

"The panel also considers it necessary to send a message to the medical profession that this behaviour is unacceptable.

"The panel is of the view that given the range of mitigating factors, a suspension of your registration, for a period of six months, is sufficient to maintain public confidence in the profession, protect the public and uphold proper standards of professional conduct and behaviour, and is a proportionate and sufficient sanction."

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