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Tuesday, 13 June, 2000, 15:35 GMT 16:35 UK
Plan to stop dangerous doctors
Medical incidents and "near misses" must be reported
The government is to set up an "early warning system" to detect serious medical problems.

The system will require hospitals to report all medical errors or near misses.

It follows reports that about 230 people tested for cancer and other illnesses may have been misdiagnosed by 78-year-old pathologist James Elwood.

The Department of Health is to launch an inquiry into the case after officials at Princess Margaret Hospital in Swindon warned that Dr Elwood, a freelance pathologist, made a number of serious mistakes while testing for cancer and other diseases.

We must stop history repeating itself

Professor Liam Donaldson, Chief Medical Officer
It is the latest scandal to threaten confidence in the NHS, following recent high-profile investigations into two gynaecologists.

This includes the case of disgraced gynaecologist Rodney Ledward who was found to have botched operations on scores of women.

And this week, another gynaecologist Richard Neale is in front of the GMC on charges of malpractice.

Central register

Under the new early warning system, a central register will log details of all serious incidents and near misses.

The register will be used to allow errors to be analysed and enable steps to be taken to ensure the mistakes do not happen again.

It is hoped the system will help to identify incompetent doctors.

Professor Liam Donaldson, Chief Medical Officer for England, said: "At the moment there is no way of knowing whether the lessons learnt from an incident in one part of the NHS are properly shared with the whole health service.

"We must stop history from repeating itself."

Dr Ian Bogle
Dr Ian Bogle backed the government's plans

Health Secretary Alan Milburn said the system would help to tackle problems at an early stage.

"Patients, staff and the public have the right to expect the NHS to learn from its mistakes so we can ensure the alarm bells ring when there are genuine concerns so they can be nipped in the bud."

Dr Ian Bogle, chairman of the BMA, welcomed the announcement.

"We support the Government's announcement today.

"Such a system could well have stopped some of the problems that have recently come to light.

"It will help strengthen patients' trust in their doctors."

Research suggests that as many as 850,000 adverse medical incidents occur each year in NHS hospitals.

These 'mistakes' are estimated to cost the health service in excess of 2bn annually.

The new system is due to be introduced in England by the end of the year. Similar proposals are expected in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Prof Donaldson has also set targets to reduce some of the more frequently reported 'mistakes'.

These include eliminating all deaths and cases of paralysis as a result of wrongly administered spinal injections by next year.

He has called for cases of negligence in obstetrics and gynaecology to be cut by one-quarter and for errors in the use of prescribed drugs to be cut by 40% by 2005.

These two areas account for 70% of all clinical negligence litigation against the NHS.

Dr Liam Fox, Shadow Health Secretary, said the new system must give full protection to patients and guarantee quality of care.

But he also stressed it was important to keep a sense of perspective.

"Most of us have been horrified by the cases brought to light recently.

"However, we must recognise that they are the exceptions, not the rule, and that most doctors are dedicated and highly skilled.

"We need to maintain the morale of doctors so that they stay in the NHS."

Arnold Simanowitz, from the pressure group Victims of Medical Accidents said that the culture of secrecy in the NHS had to be challenged.

He said: "The only way to do that is to engender an open culture, and make sure there isn't a culture of blame."

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See also:

08 Jun 00 | Health
The Rodney Ledward interview
12 Jun 00 | Health
Surgeon 'mistreated women'
12 Jun 00 | Health
GMC on the ropes
13 Jun 00 | UK Politics
Call for controls on doctors
13 Jun 00 | Health
Spotting medical mistakes
13 Jun 00 | Health
James Elwood: Chronology
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