Leading Article: The Bristol Report Must Mark the End of Doctors' Lack of Accountability Incompetence and Arrogance Make a Lethal Combination

The Independent (London, England), July 19, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Leading Article: The Bristol Report Must Mark the End of Doctors' Lack of Accountability Incompetence and Arrogance Make a Lethal Combination


THERE HAS been little to take comfort from in the tragedy of the Bristol heart babies scandal, where the incompetence of individual surgeons was aggravated by the medical arrogance which lay at the heart of the cover-up. We hope that the publication yesterday of Professor Ian Kennedy's report into the Bristol nightmare - the "Greek tragedy", as he describes it - marks a glimmer of light at the end of a long tunnel.

Two surgeons and the chief executive of the Bristol Royal Infirmary were deemed three years ago to have been guilty of "serious professional misconduct". Comparison of survival statistics suggested that as many as 90 babies may have died unnecessarily under the knife. The infirmary itself became grimly known as "the killing fields". The anaesthetist who blew the whistle on the scandal, Stephen Bolsin, was forced out of his job by the threats that he received.

In short: a grisly catalogue. James Wisheart, one of the surgeons involved, who was struck off in 1998, recently expressed for the first time his regret for the "torment" he caused. But the Kennedy report is important in that it does not simply focus on the individuals involved in the tragedy. Indeed, Professor Kennedy makes it clear that the report is not in the business of naming and shaming. Rather, the problems go much deeper. The medical profession does not exist to protect its own; it exists to protect the health of those placed under its care. A crucial change in the doctors' mindset was needed to make that distinction clear. One recommendation reminds us of how dire things have been: "When things go wrong, patients are entitled to receive an acknowledgement, an explanation, and an apology."

The most important points that emerge from the Kennedy report are devoted to the need for the "club culture" to change, where "vulnerable children were not a priority, either in Bristol or throughout the NHS".

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