Hospital chief was right to release patient consent forms to media

BMJ 2001; 322 doi: (Published 26 May 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:1266
  1. Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
  1. BMJ

    The acting chief executive of North Staffordshire hospital, who released signed patient consent forms to a reporter when the hospital was embroiled in a controversy over the trial of a new ventilation system for premature babies, was cleared of serious professional misconduct by the General Medical Council last week.

    Keith Prowse, the hospital's medical director, was standing in as chief executive in 1997 when the row blew up over the continuous negative extrathoracic pressure system. Debbie Henshall, the mother of two premature babies who took part in the trial, claimed her signature had been forged on consent forms.

    Continuous negative extrathoracic pressure hit the headlines when it emerged that a slightly larger number of babies in the group treated with the new ventilation system had abnormal brain scans compared with those in a control group. One of Mrs Henshall's babies died and the other has cerebral palsy.

    Dr Prowse, a respiratory physician who was acting chief executive for six months in 1997 after the then chief executive left, authorised the hospital's public relations firm to release forms signed by Mrs Henshall to a reporter from Channel 4 News, Kent Barker, so that he could verify her signature.

    The professional conduct committee ruled that Dr Prowse, who took advice from the hospital's lawyers before releasing the information, was entitled to take the action he did in the exceptional circumstances of the case.

    The committee's chairman, Manny Devaux, told him: “At the time when you decided to make these disclosures, the North Staffordshire Hospital NHS Trust was faced with the prospect that allegations of forgery against doctors practising in the paediatric department were planned to be broadcast on television within 48 hours. Such public allegations would seriously have undermined the trust of patients and their parents in the paediatric department.

    “Such a breakdown of trust would seriously have damaged the standards of medical care provided by the paediatric department. In particular, parents of babies and young children would have been reluctant to accept and act upon the medical advice of doctors whom they believed to be guilty of forgery. The best interests of these patients demanded that such allegations (which were entirely false) should not be made.”

    Mr Devaux pointed out that the Henshalls had already given written consent for their concerns to be aired in public at the request of another reporter who was investigating the trial on continuous negative extrathoracic pressure.

    “It was your opinion, supported by professional advice, that only the disclosure of documents containing the unchallengeable signature of Mrs A [Debbie Henshall] would be sufficient to prevent the allegations of forgery being made. The best interest of your patients therefore required this disclosure.

    “In the judgment of the committee and in these circumstances, the disclosures you made were not prohibited by the professional rules governing confidentiality. Accordingly, the further consent of Mr and Mrs A was not necessary or required or appropriate.”

    But he added: “The committee wish to make clear that the circumstances in which you were placed were truly exceptional and nothing which the committee have decided should in anyway be understood to diminish the obligation upon doctors, whether or not they are acting as managers, to preserve the confidences of patients.”

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