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Surgeon accused of operating beyond his competence

BMJ 2001; 323 doi: (Published 15 September 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;323:592
  1. Owen Dyer
  1. London

    A consultant surgeon who left five women dead and seven more injured was accused before the General Medical Council this week of performing operations for which he had no training or experience and of misleading patients' families about the botched outcomes.

    Steven Walker, 44, has been suspended on full pay of £55 000 ($77 000) since January 1999 from his job as a consultant general surgeon at the Victoria Hospital, Blackpool. After a hospital review of 140 of his cases, the General Medical Council charged him with serious professional misconduct. The tribunal is focusing on five bowel operations, two liver operations, and five breast reconstructions.

    Rebecca Poulet QC, prosecuting, said Mr Walker showed an “alarming lack of insight” into his clinical shortcomings. His excessive optimism about his skills, she said, led him to opt for inappropriate surgery, despite his being untrained in many of the procedures required.

    His enthusiasm made him popular with many patients, she said, and was instrumental in his getting the job at Blackpool in April 1995, after he had worked as a senior registrar at Liverpool's Broadgreen Hospital. Poulet said, “He had an eternal desire to put Blackpool on the map, but unfortunately his skills were insufficient.”

    Colleagues soon began to express concerns about the amounts of blood lost by his patients during surgery. One 70 year old woman, named as DM, lost 17 litres of blood during an operation to remove a liver tumour. Staff became so worried that they asked Mr Walker to stop operating. Immediately after the operation Mr Walker told DM's family that she had had “a few problems” and had “bled a little.” The woman died two hours later. He later wrote to the woman's GP, saying she had been transferred to intensive care in a “satisfactory state.”

    Mr Walker also performed breast reconstruction surgery despite being unqualified, the GMC heard. Five women were scarred, and there were several complaints, but he was allowed to carry on. When one anaesthetist refused to continue working with him in 1997, the hospital's management attributed it to a personality clash and assigned Mr Walker another anaesthetist. The replacement echoed his colleague's concerns and even accused Mr Walker of going for a coffee break while one woman was bleeding heavily on the operating table. The patient died later that day.

    The case is expected to last two months.

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