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Polish police hold health workers over alleged murder of patients

BMJ 2002; 324 doi: (Published 02 February 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;324:260
  1. Katka Krosnar
  1. Prague

    Polish police have detained seven people including doctors and paramedics on suspicion of being involved in a scam in which patients were killed and their bodies sold to undertakers.

    They are investigating claims that ambulance crews in Lodz, 110 km from Warsaw, deliberately delayed the arrival of emergency vehicles at patients' homes or at hospitals, leaving patients to die, and even administered drugs that speeded up the deaths of seriously ill patients, in return for bribes. It is thought the practice could have been going on for years and that hundreds of deaths could be involved.

    The claims, which have shocked the people of Poland, first emerged in a local newspaper report that alleged that funeral parlours in Lodz had paid up to £300 ($420; €490) to be notified of a death and that some medical workers might have facilitated death to collect the reward.

    According to the claims, physicians also allegedly received bribes of between £200 and £300 per corpse from funeral homes, in exchange for persuading bereaved relatives to choose those businesses.

    “What the media have reported are facts. Months of work by police has confirmed signs of unlawful and inhumane acts by emergency first aid workers and funeral parlours,” said Lodz police spokesman Jaroslaw Berger. He added that police had gathered “substantial evidence” to support the allegations and that the first charges could be filed within days.

    The Polish health ministry said that some ambulance crews had used “extraordinarily high amounts” of the muscle relaxant drug pancuronium bromide (Pavulon). The ministry has now banned ambulance workers from using the drug and has ordered an investigation into its use.

    Police spokeswoman Joanna Kacka told the BMJ that seven people had been questioned on suspicion of corruption and involvement in a serious crime and that the number could rise. Although no charges of murder have yet been brought, she emphasised that the investigation was still ongoing. It is understood that the group includes two doctors, but Ms Kacka did not confirm this.

    She did not deny reports that ambulance crews administered pancuronium bromide to speed up patients' deaths before tipping off funeral service providers in return for bribes.

    Ms Kacka said that police were now considering exhuming the bodies of people who had died in ambulances.

    The former head of Lodz's ambulance service told the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza that he was aware that the practice of selling information about deaths existed but denied personal involvement.

    Health minister Mariusz Lapinski insisted that the incidents were isolated and that similar practices did not occur in other parts of the country. In the neighbouring Czech Republic it has also emerged that some funeral parlours offer medical staff and police officers around £100 for information about deaths.

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