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In 1998 the General Medical Council (GMC) charged two Bristol surgeons and their medical director with misconduct on the grounds that they had failed to recognise and act upon their poor outcome results.1 In September 1999, the enquiry set up to investigate the events at Bristol heard evidence from Professor Robert Anderson. He told the panel that a collection of hearts was housed at the Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool and that many other hospitals had collections of organs for research purposes. His purpose was to explain how these had improved the results of paediatric cardiac surgery,2 but the Liverpool Echo and the national press picked up the story and presented it as a scandal. The Alder Hey Hospital was overwhelmed with enquiries from anxious and angry parents. Accounts of post mortem organ removal, examination and retention, which the medical profession had considered normal practice, rapidly became intertwined with the unprofessional and unacceptable behaviour of one Alder Hey pathologist, Professor van Velzen. The Secretary of State for health then ordered an enquiry, which was conducted by a Queen's Counsel (senior trial lawyer), Michael Redfern.
Redfern's report contains many important messages about job descriptions, management and the responsibilities of coroners.3 It is not just an account of an overzealous and dysfunctional pathologist. Nevertheless, the detailed descriptions of how parents felt they had been deceived and let down by doctors make disturbing reading. These, together with media phrases such as “ghoulish malpractice and gross mismanagement”, “organs systematically stripped”, and “return of the body snatchers”4 have left the profession hurt and bemused. Politicians are accused of talking up the story for their own ends. This was clearly a systems failure,5 yet the doctors involved have been reported to the General Medical Council. Apologies have been offered on behalf …
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