Political threats and how to deal with them


There have been several attempts by politicians in the last ten years to bully, harass and intimidate doctors. Some have been extremely unpleasant.

One was the Alder Hey incident. Most people will recall the furore over the hoarding of body parts at this well-known children’s hospital in Liverpool, and possibly remember that the then Secretary of State for Health, Alan Milburn, stated that the doctors at Alder Hey Hospital should be immediately referred to the GMC.

At the time I was Clinical Director for Pathology in my hospital, and was therefore sent the report so I could assess our potential problems with my manager. There had already been a few hysterical people ringing up to recover any material to reunite with their dead loved ones, even if it was only a microscope slide of a bit of tumour. Bizarre really – but it was not long before I realised that the whole incident had been completely distorted. No-one had actually read the whole report before sounding off.

The report was written like a racy novel[1]. The problem was, in fact, that a very strange man, Dick Van Velzen, had been appointed to a professorial post based at Alder Hey. It was an academic post. Thus the job description had been constructed by the university. The clinicians at Alder Hey and some outside advisors had expressed serious reservations about the job description itself and indicated it would be almost impossible to do. The university disagreed and went ahead with interviews. The clinicians on the panel expressed serious reservations about the appointed candidate but were overruled. So, far from the clinicians being to blame, they had actually tried at two points in the process to stop it. If anyone should have been held to account it was the university. So much for fairness! The clinicians were pilloried in the press, harassed and vilified but it was nothing to do with them. Even now the Alder Hey affair is written about in horrified hyperbole. However it doesn’t matter what systems you put in place; it won’t stop the determined mad or bad; revalidation may weed out the under-competent but will not stop another Shipman. And all of this regulation costs money. Is the cost worth the benefit?

[1] You can find it at http://www.rlcinquiry.org.uk/download/index.htm . It is interesting how many such reports are so readable. Try the Denning Report on the Profumo affair, which was one of the first such to make sure that the facts did not get in the way of a good story.


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