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The Bristol heart babies Tuesday, 19 October, 1999, 09:37 GMT 10:37 UK
Ward known as 'departure lounge'
protest
Protestors campaigned for a public inquiry
A ward at Bristol Royal Infirmary was known to local doctors as "the departure lounge" and one of the cardiac consultants was nick-named "Killer", the public inquiry into paediatric heart surgery at the hospital has heard.

Media doctor and personality Dr Phil Hammond told the inquiry that the medical profession could no longer be trusted to regulate itself in secret, and said league tables of heart surgeons' performance should be published.

Dr Hammond is credited with bringing the Bristol heart babies scandal to the attention of the general public through the pages of Private Eye magazine under the pseudonym MD.

He also said events in the hospital were symptomatic of wider institutional problems and it was simplistic to blame everything on the three doctors disciplined by the General Medical Council, the regulatory body for doctors.

Lack of trust

"I don't believe that the medical profession can be trusted any longer to regulate itself in secret," Dr Hammond, who is also a part-time GP in Bristol, said.

bri
Dr Phil Hammond was alerted to problems at the hospital
"If we believe the NHS is a first-class service, and there is no room for second class service, then the figures should be published.

"By publishing, there is no way people can hide from poor performance.

"Parents would want to know the comparative success rate of surgical teams if their child is having heart surgery.

"If you go into any specialism there is a wide variance in performance. It really does matter where you are treated."

'The killing fields'

Articles in Private Eye published in 1992 referred to "dismal mortality statistics in the paediatric cardiac surgery unit since 1988" at the hospital known as the "Killing fields".

Following a GMC hearing in 1998, heart surgeon Mr James Wisheart and hospital chief executive Dr John Roylance were struck off the medical register, while Mr Janardhan Dhasmana, also a surgeon, was banned from performing surgery on children for three years.

However, Dr Hammond told the inquiry the surgeons were "fall guys" for a "much wider problem".

"It has been a systematic failure all around and all the way up," he said.

Although the high death rates were "unacceptable", to "retrospectively blame it on three people is a gross over-simplification", he said.

'Ensuring quality'

"There was no systematic way of protecting babies from poor performance at that time and there was no defined minimum standard for surgeons to achieve.

bolsin
Dr Stephen Bolsin provided solid evidence
"I find it extraordinary that there was no quality control.

"What was needed was someone who knew what the national pattern was. We needed someone separate saying 'Look what is happening in other specialist units'.

"It was left entirely down to the surgeon's conscience to act on whether they thought their figures were poor, and it was never done in any systematic way."

Dr Hammond said he first became aware of problems at the hospital in 1988 when he learned the nick-name of one of the hospital's adult heart surgeons - "Killer". Later he was told that one ward was known as the "Departure lounge".

Dr Hammond said he would rather face a custodial sentence than identify his source for this anecdotal evidence.

More solid evidence of problems came after he met Dr Stephen Bolsin, a consultant anaesthetist at the hospital, in April 1992.

It was only then that he felt confident to publish what he knew of the hospital's poor practices, he said.

See also:

18 Oct 99 | The Bristol heart babies
04 Oct 99 | The Bristol heart babies
18 Oct 99 | The Bristol heart babies
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