Medical Errors

Perfection in medical practice is a laudable goal. But not achievable at all time. Some errors and complications are inherent in medicine although the medical profession promises to do no harm.

But what about people like Dr. Harold Shipman? Also known as Dr. Jekyll. He is a British general practitioner known as the world’s most prolific serial killer. A recent audit of his practice in Hyde, Manchester indicates that he is responsible for the deaths of as many as 345 of his patients – average of one patient a month for more than 20 years.

He is reported to have been a dedicated and congenial physician. His victims were older ladies.

An article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) says that Dr. Shipman’s crimes first came to light in 1998 when a local GP contacted the coroner about what he saw as an unusual number of deaths. A local undertaker also voiced suspicions, but there was insufficient evidence for police to proceed.

The article says that Dr. Shipman had one conviction before when he started his practice in 1974, at Todmorden, West Yorkshire. He was convicted of dishonestly obtaining drugs. His practice partners had noticed that he was signing prescriptions for narcotic drug that his patients never received.

How did he get caught for his latest crimes?

He got too greedy and picked a wrong kind of patient. His victim was the former mayor of Hyde, Kathleen Grundy. Grundy, 81, had left Shipman 350,000 pounds in her will. Grundy’s daughter, a lawyer, got suspicious and contacted the police. Shipman was investigated and charged with murdering 15 of his patients. Now he is serving 15 life sentences.

Are there many Shipmans in the medical community?

“Everything points to the fact that a doctor with the sinister and macabre motivations of Harold Shipman is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence”, says UK’s chief medical officer, Dr. Liam Donaldson, in the CMAJ article.

That may be true. But an article in the British Medical Journal says that medicine has thrown up more serial killers than all the other professions put together, with nursing a close second. Dentistry too has had its notorious characters, yet among veterinarians homicide seems to be almost unknown.

The article goes on to name numerous physicians over the years who have been convicted of multiple murders all over the world. The author of the article makes a case that the medical profession attracts some people with a pathological interest in the power of life and death. These physicians also include Nazi doctors who engaged in ethnic cleansing and the Japanese doctors who engaged in biological warfare.

The author says that the health authorities are becoming more vigilant in monitoring health professionals’ activities. And currently there are two major police investigations into multiple deaths in hospital – one in France, the other in Britain.

The British government has established a new agency – National Clinical Assessment Authority – to intervene rapidly when suspicions emerge about a medical practice instead of waiting for the licensing body – General Medical Council – to act.

In Canada, each province has its own licensing body to monitor physician practices and complaints. So far they seem to be effective. But we have to be vigilant. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta has also established the Physician Achievement Review Program (PAR) to improve the delivery of medical care in our province. We will discuss the PAR program in the next column. Until then stay safe and healthy!

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