Page last updated at 22:04 GMT, Sunday, 25 May 2008 23:04 UK

Patients wrongly certified dead

Patient on ward
Doctors says that cases of an incorrect diagnosis are rare

Patients in five English hospitals have been incorrectly diagnosed as being dead over the past five years, the BBC has discovered.

The information was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Donal MacIntyre programme.

In each case the mistake was later realised, the programme reports.

An earlier case, dating from the mid 90s, involved a woman being revived by a policeman after a doctor had pronounced her dead.

Det Con Philip Shrimpton was called to a remote house in Thwing, East Yorkshire, in 1996 where Mrs Maureen Jones had slipped into a diabetic coma.

She would have been placed in a coffin and taken to the mortuary and placed in a fridge
Det Con Philip Shrimpton

She was found lying face down in her bedroom. A doctor had incorrectly diagnosed her as dead and had left the scene - but Det Con Shrimpton had his doubts after his colleague thought he had seen her body move.

He told the Donal MacIntyre programme: "She didn't have the characteristics of someone who was dead in her eyes - it was almost as if there was some soul there.

"I started giving her heart massage and after a couple of moments she took an intake of breath. I noticed there was some shallow breathing. I didn't panic ¿ but I was very shocked."

Knock at the door

Moments previously, Det Con Shrimpton had told Mrs Jones' son that his mother had died.

"I've thought about what it must have appeared to him. The doctor told him that his mother was dead and he comes into the room and there are two police officers - one astride his mother.

"At the same time there was a knock at the door and I can only imagine it was the undertaker.

"If we hadn't recognised the fact she was alive, I am absolutely sure that the undertaker would have come upstairs.

"She would have been placed in a coffin and taken to the mortuary and placed in a fridge. She would almost definitely have died as a result."

In a further case uncovered by the investigations, a decision was made to withdraw active treatment on a patient.

The patient was reviewed by a doctor who confirmed verbally that the patient had died.

A short time later it was noticed that the patient was still breathing and when the patient was reassessed it was discovered that cardiac activity had returned.

'Rare events'

Dr Jan Bondeson, Professor of Rheumatology at Cardiff University and author of Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear believes that these cases could be more widespread.

"There have been some near misses where people have woken up in a body bag in the morgue. So it is very likely that others have been buried alive," he said.

However, Dr Jonty Heaversedge of BBC One's Street Doctor said that cases of misdiagnoses are rare.

"These are cases where doctors haven't spent enough time confirming death. The vast majority of diagnoses are obvious and clear and there are very few exceptions.

"All doctors are very well trained in diagnosing death and spend a lot of time making the correct diagnosis. People should not be worried about these extremely rare events."

The Radio 5 Live investigation was broadcast on the Donal MacIntyre programme on Sunday 25 May. Get the podcast at the Donal MacIntyre programme website

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