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Tuesday, 24 July, 2001, 10:28 GMT 11:28 UK
Bristol babies inquiry: Does it go far enough?

The long-awaited report of the inquiry into the Bristol heart babies scandal has been published.

It blames flawed surgeons for unnecessary deaths at the unit and concludes that between 30 and 35 children who underwent heart surgery at Bristol between 1991 and 1995 should not have died.

It condemns a "club culture" among doctors at the unit, who adopted a paternalistic attitude to patients and were caught up in professional rivalries.

The multi-million pound inquiry runs to 500 pages, with 12,000 pages of back-up statistical data. It makes 198 recommendations.

Among those recommendations are a call for better information to patients and improvements to the management of NHS services.

Do the recommendations go far enough? Will this report give any relief to the families of the dead babies?

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Your reaction

I was surprised that paediatric cardiology cases were referred to Southampton not Bristol

Rachel Rose, UK
I am a doctor and in 1992 I took a post as a junior doctor in Plymouth. I was surprised when I arrived to find that paediatric cardiology cases were referred to Southampton not Bristol (not logical geographically). When I asked about this I was told it was because of concerns about Bristol's cardiological surgical unit. Two points - if a large unit withdrew its contract with Bristol for cardiological services, why wasn't this picked up on? Also why did not the consultants at Plymouth raise their concerns (or did they?) with the area Health Authority?
Rachel Rose, UK

It should not need to be up to the public to examine performance in "league tables" (in the Health Service or Education). Both of these institutions already have very well paid bureaucracies in place above them, who seem both unable and unwilling to sack people. In a business, managers identify those who cannot do their job and eliminate them. Why are people in public-paid professions not accountable for their mistakes and incompetence?
Andrew Otty, England

I look with horror on a report that proposes periodic re-evaluation of all physicians as a cure all for substandard medical care. Have you people ever heard of credential review, ongoing peer review, sentinel event analysis, etc, etc, etc? This is standard operating procedure in U.S. hospitals, thanks to the Joint Commission.
Albert Garib, M.D., USA

As the father of one of the many children left brain damaged, but counted as a success because they survived, I ask why this Inquiry chose to ignore this outcome?
Jim Stewart, UK

We have to accept that the days of assuming "doctor knows best" are gone

K Sadler, UK
I think the report has succeeded in giving a realistic view of what happened. Moving forward there have to be changes but they must be two way. Doctors have to lose their paternalistic attitudes and realise they are accountable. However we run the risk of discouraging doctors from trying higher-risk procedures which may save lives because of the risk of being sued.

Equally patients must get more involved, take time to understand what is happening, ask for success rates in writing before being admitted, and find out who their surgeon or specialist will be and check him or her out. By asking questions, we as patients force issues like success rates into the open. Then, in this supposed open market, patients can pressurise GPs to choose the best hospitals. If the NHS structure has to change, then we as patients may as well use those changes to our advantage. We have to accept that the days of assuming "doctor knows best" are gone!
K Sadler, UK

I applaud the report, particularly its desire to move away from the culture of American-style medical litigation to encourage a culture where doctors admit mistakes and are not hounded out of their profession for reporting the mistakes of others. This is simply professional responsibility which no statutory body can ever enforce. However, where there are clear cases of medical negligence, realistic compensation payments to patients must be sufficiently swift and generous that the system is taken seriously.
Andy Millward, UK

This story is very worrying for parents like myself whose child is awaiting open heart surgery

Lorraine Swann, England
This story is very worrying for parents like myself whose child is awaiting open heart surgery. What better practices have been put in place and have these problems occurred in other hospitals?
Lorraine Swann, England

The report blames lack of leadership and monitoring, but most of all an attitude that children were not the priority. How many of us feel like this when we go to visit our local GP or hospital? It is not a question of resources, management or leadership. It is about transferring "power" out of the medical profession and Whitehall and giving it to the patient. My recent experience in the private health sector has hardened my views that the medical profession is motivated by the same thing as most of us, financial reward.

We are a new, well-travelled generation and unlike our forebears we are experiencing healthcare in other parts of the world. Even some of the third world countries put our NHS to shame. Resources and leadership are lacking in many of these countries, but a paying customer is treated with care and dignity. The 'word of mouth' is very powerful in those countries. A mediocre doctor and one that does not put his/her patients first soon gains a reputation and loses 'business'.
Tariq Khan, UK

I don't wish to be a devil's advocate, but I wonder how scandalous what happened in Bristol really is. Infant mortality in the developing world is far higher than it is in the UK, and I'm sure these surgeons did not set out to kill these unfortunate children, who would have died without intervention. At least there was someone to make an attempt at saving them, which is more than can be said for most such babies elsewhere. As with the organs scandal, is it time for some perspective?
Rupert Cousens, UK

Professor Kennedy and his team have done a truly remarkable job

David Wrede, Scotland
Professor Kennedy and his team have done a truly remarkable job, in coolly pointing out systematic failures in the profession I belong to - and the NHS - to put safety first. However without Stephen Bolsin we might still not have known the truth and he was hounded out of the UK - shame on all of us!
David Wrede, Scotland

After the disgraces of Rodney Ledward, Richard Neale, Harold Shipman and now this, how many more tragedies before it's realised that the GMC must be abolished and statutory regulation be put in it's place. The GMC's function is to protect doctors and not patients. As such it is the greatest threat to public health in this country. The government don't want to do anything about it because they don't fancy tackling the resistance they would inevitably face. In fact if they don't encounter any resistance they're probably not making any effective change.
Robert Beattie, Great Britain

We doctors all make mistakes, like everyone else. Sometimes patients may die as a result. This will inevitably happen sometimes, but can be minimised if there is the right culture, the will, and the resources. This report should mark a turning point, but extra training and better quality control all consume resources. The blame culture also needs to be addressed. Criticising doctors without giving us the tools to get on with the job isn't enough. People who are living in fear of being sued will always cover up for each other-the issues of witch hunting and scapegoating will have to be addressed too if people are to be encouraged to own up to mistakes and try to learn from them and do better.
stephen, England

I say "Well Done" to those who bravely alerted the world to the issues in this enquiry. I deeply regret that such public spirited actions are not more widely found. Let us hope for a more open form of medical council and removal of surgical clubs to defend the indefensible.
David Green, UK

The NHS is a socialized beaurocracy with minimal accountability. I know because my business has involved me in the UK with the NHS and in the US with the private health care system. The UK is now conditioned to expect a low grade health system which the mis-informed actually think is "free". Low expectations means poor performance. On a recent visit back to the UK I was shocked at the standard of patient care in the UK. It would not be tolerated here. Wake up Brits, its not too late! John Ex-pat CA USA
john, USA

For far too long has the medical profession taken a pompous attitude to their patients . Treating them as commodities rather than human beings. Scratch the surface and I am sure you will find many other Bristols just waiting to be exposed. Public impatience is growing at the inability of Doctors to police themselves and to blow the whistle where necessary. It is time for them to be judged qualitatively and quantitatively and leave the reverential dogma behind. Doctors also need the guts to stand and be counted when they find fault with their colleagues. We all know the consequences when they don't!
Misbah, UK

Three cheers to Stephen Bolsin - what a wonderful person!
John Kazer, UK

As a medical student I agree with the comments of David Wrede above. I want to work in a healthcare system which has enough resources and investment in our staff and our systems to reduce risk. Can Alan Milburn and Co deliver this? Who Knows?
Dennis Woodhouse, UK

Only a government run system has the power to suppress decades of negative reports and statistics. This scandal is the best argument so far for opening up the NHS to private competition. Socialist systems promise good care and service, but in practice they always develop an authoritarian and highly secretive mentality that puts the doctor and the hospital first and the patient a long way second.
jon livesey, USA

As one of the statisticians involved in the assessment of the data for the BRI Inquiry I disagree with some of the views of Dr Polonieki, but agree with others. The vital point is that there is always variation in death or success rates that is simply random. The demand to have individual surgeon's rates will lead to more uncertainty and will make it more difficult to find units that are performing badly. Unless an individual surgeon has a very large series of operations indeed, the uncertainty in that rate will be too high to allow any useful conclusions to be drawn. Interviewers on Newsnight and others do not understand this point and unless it is understood the public will be encouraged to have unrealistic expectations.
Stephen Evans, UK

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