Police investigate suspicious hospital deaths

BMJ 1996; 312 doi: (Published 13 April 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;312:930
  1. Owen Dyer

    A nurse is under investigation by the Northumbria police after a series of suspicious deaths in the intensive care unit of the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne. The hospital's internal inquiry in February found a senior nursing sister guilty of gross misconduct and suspended her immediately, before sacking her in March. The hospital's solicitor then contacted the coroner Leonard Coyle, who then called in the police.

    Four patients are now believed to have died between 1991 and 1995 after their intravenous drips were tampered with. They include a 12 year old and a 15 year old, who had been admitted to the adult ward because of the nature of their injuries. Patricia Dryden, aged 15, died five days after being admitted with 50% burns after a butane aerosol exploded during a gas sniffing session. She never regained consciousness. Her family has now been told that her death may have been a result of tampering with her drip feed.

    The other patients were a 69 year old woman and a middle aged man who has not yet been formally identified. A spokeswoman for the NHS Executive, Northern and Yorkshire, said: “Following concerns expressed by a colleague about an employee's professional conduct, an internal inquiry was started in early February. As a result of this inquiry a female member of nursing staff was dismissed for gross misconduct. The trust followed normal disciplinary procedures throughout the case and is now cooperating with the police investigation.”

    The Labour MP for Newcastle Central, Jim Cousins, has criticised the hospital for not contacting the police and waiting too long before contacting the coroner. He has called for a public inquiry.

    The sister, who had 17 years' experience at the infirmary, has appealed. If the appeal fails, the UK Central Council for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visitors is understood to be preparing a case against her that could lead to her being struck off the nurses' register. The appeal will be heard by a panel of non-executive directors.

    Police and hospital authorities have yet to establish a possible motive if the deaths are found to have been deliberate.—OWEN DYER, freelance journalist, London

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