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Doctors suspended in child health inquiry

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: (Published 18 December 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:1592
  1. Judy Jones
  1. Malmesbury, Wiltshire

    Two consultant paediatricians have been suspended by the North Staffordshire Hospital NHS Trust, in Stoke on Trent, nearly a year after the government ordered an independent inquiry into parents' allegations of misconduct.

    Although the trust has not named the doctors, they are understood to be Professor David Southall and his colleague Dr Martin Samuels.

    In a statement released last month, the trust said it was “continuing to investigate a number of potentially serious albeit unsubstantiated allegations concerning child protection and research issues at the hospital.”

    It had taken advice from two separate panels of independently nominated experts as part of its own internal investigation into complaints received. “The trust would emphasise that these suspensions are not a disciplinary action and in no way prejudge the outcome of these investigations,” the statement said.

    Professor Southall's work in the field of child abuse has stoked fierce controversy since the mid-1980s. He pioneered covert video surveillance in hospital of mothers suspected of child abuse, and the evidence gathered has helped to send some parents to jail and children into local authority care.

    Last February, the government appointed Professor Rod Griffiths, regional director of public health for the West Midlands, to head an inquiry into allegations concerning research led by Professor Southall in the use of a new type of ventilator (BMJ 1999;318:553).

    The ventilator was tested between 1989 and 1993 on 122 premature babies with breathing difficulties in a randomised controlled trial of a technique known as continuous negative extrathoracic pressure (Pediatrics 1996;98:1154-60) Of the 61 babies treated with the new technique, 28 died and 15 sustained brain damage. Of the 61 babies in the control group, who received conventional treatment, 22 infants died and 10 experienced brain damage. The authors of the study and the hospital have claimed that the differences were “not statistically significant.”

    Eighteen parents of babies involved in the study complained to the General Medical Council that they had not been made aware of the experimental nature of the ventilator treatment.

    Professor Griffiths has reported his findings on the ventilation study to Lord Hunt, the health minister, but they have not been made public. The government is expected to announce its conclusions early in the new year.

    A trust spokesman was unable to indicate when the hospital's own parallel investigations were likely to reach a conclusion.

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