Intended for healthcare professionals


The criminalisation of fatal medical mistakes

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: (Published 13 November 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:1118
  1. Jon Holbrook, barrister (
  1. 2 Garden Court Chambers, London EC4Y 9BL

    A social intolerance of medical mistakes has caused them to be criminalised

    After pleading guilty to the manslaughter of his patient by gross negligence Feda Mulhem was given a custodial sentence of eight months. Dr Mulhem, who was only three days into his first post as a specialist registrar in haematology at Queen's Medical Centre, Nottingham, had instructed a junior doctor to inject an anticancer drug into the patient's spine. The drug should have been injected intravenously but Dr Mulhem had confused this drug with another that is given at the same time, which is properly injected into the spine. Within a few minutes the doctor realised the magnitude of his mistake and was visibly shaken, but it was too late to save the life of his teenage patient, Wayne Jowett, whose cancer was in remission.1 Because Dr Mulhem had already served time in custody awaiting his trial he was released immediately, and the dead patient's father called the eight month sentence “absolutely ridiculous,” for being too short.2

    The anger of Wayne Jowett's father was understandable, but the use of the criminal justice system to punish Dr Mulhem is questionable. He was not seeking to harm his patient; in fact he was intending to further his recovery. His “crime” was that he made a mistake; …

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