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Monday, June 14, 1999 Published at 11:35 GMT 12:35 UK


'Urgent' heart inquiry demand

Glasgow is Scotland's main cardiac surgery centre

A health watchdog is calling for an urgent inquiry into the competency of a senior heart surgeon.

Philip Belcher was suspended from his post at Glasgow Royal Infirmary in December 1997 after an internal audit found his patients' death rate was significantly higher than that of his colleagues.

But neither the hospital nor the University of Glasgow, which employs Mr Belcher, has yet investigated the allegations relating to his clinical performance.

Greater Glasgow Health Council spokesman Danny Crawford said: "It's clearly a matter of public concern.

"The public obviously should be concerned that there hasn't been an investigation into what happened at that time.

"I think there's also a question about learning lessons. We want to be satisfied that every step is taken to ensure that there are good quality services."

[ image: Philip Belcher: Suspended on full pay]
Philip Belcher: Suspended on full pay
In a statement to BBC Scotland, the university said it had investigated the aspects of the complaint against Mr Belcher which did not refer to clinical performance.

A report, along with allegations relating to his clinical performance but which the university was not competent to assess, had been passed to Mr Belcher for comment. None had yet been received from him or his representatives.

A spokesman said: "The university is currently discussing the next step with the NHS trust in the light of the revised procedures recommended by the Scottish Office in order to determine a way forward which would involve the assessment of clinical performance.

"In the university's view, there is no question of Mr Belcher returning to clinical duties until the question of is competence has been resolved."

New guidelines

The Scottish Office does not have direct responsiblity for the matter but is believed to want the inquiry resolved as soon as possible to ensure public confidence is not eroded.

In response to concerns about the length of some suspensions, the British Medical Association and the Scottish Office produced new guidelines in March.

These say a suspension and subsequent inquiry should take no longer than approximately six months. A BMA spokesman said: "That is only guidance, it depends on the complexity of the case.

"However, we would feel that that is the way ahead."

Abeer Parkes discusses the case with the BBC's Good Morning Scotland
BBC Scotland health correspondent Abeer Parkes said the government demanded following the Bristol heart babies scandal that the medical profession must be seen to be open and accountable.

To comply with that, a new principle of "clinical governance" had been issued which made every individual and chief executives of health trusts were not answerable for any failings.

As a result, the university is likely to come under pressure to establish an inquiry and come up with answers for the public, she added.

The Bristol Heart Babies
The surgeon - full name Ormonde Philip Paul Rashleigh Belcher - is a member of an eminent medical family. His father, Professor John Rashleigh Belcher, is a retired thoracic surgeon.

He qualified in London in 1973 and is a senior lecturer in cardiac surgery at the University of Glasgow.

Mr Belcher is one of about 15 consultant cardiac surgeons in Scotland, most of whom are based in the main cardiac centre in Glasgow.

He last performed an operation on 26 June, 1997, and had previously had restrictions placed on his work when he was allowed to perform surgery only when supervised by an equal or senior member of staff.

Mr Belcher has been on full pay - thought to be about £70,000 a year - throughout his suspension.

The higher death rate among his patients was detected during a routine clinical audit. Among the factors to be considered by an inquiry are the patients' severity of illness and how well other surgeons might have performed on similar cases.

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