Human Experiments

Doctors face charges after 12-year fight

General Medical Council's failure to deal with serious misconduct
By Sarah-Kate Templeton, Health Editor


Royal Navy doctors accused of carrying out radiation trials on
patients without permission are expected to appear before the General
Medical Council this week, more than 12 years after the experiments
took place.
The doctors from the Institute of Naval Medicine in Gosport,
Hampshire, are accused of injecting patients who had a neurological
disease with a radioactive isotope without ethics approval and
without permission from the government body that regulates the use of
radiation treatment.

Details of the trials were published in a medical journal 12 years
ago but it is only now that the charges have finally reached a
preliminary hearing at the General Medical Council (GMC) -- the
regulatory body that decides whether doctors are fit to practise. The
injections contained a radioactive metal that can cause cancers.
Because of the risks, doctors must get permission from the Admin
istration of Radioactive Substances Advisory Committee if they wish
to use radioactive isotopes in trials.

This weekend the doctor who blew the whistle on the tests he claims
were highly unethical told the Sunday Herald it was only after years
of fighting to make the health authorities take action against the
doctors involved that the case is actually being heard.

Dr Peter Wilmshurst, a consultant cardiologist at the Royal
Shrewsbury Hospital, claims he was even threatened with legal action
when he first tried to bring the case to light.

'I first raised this two months after the research was publish ed. I
tried for a number of years to get the institution to answer but they
said they would sue.'

Wilmshurst also alerted the journal that published the article but he
said the editor at the time refused to do anything about it. It was
only when a new editor was appointed that the medical journal agreed
to join Wilmshurst in reporting the doctors to the GMC.

'When I heard there was a new editor I went to him and he said 'this
is serious' and we went to the GMC six years ago.'

The GMC is expected to decide at a private meeting this week whether
the allegations are serious enough to hold a full hearing.

'Would you want to inject a radioactive isotope, an active isotope,
into a patient without ethics approval or approval from the
department of health?' Wilmshurst asked. 'Radioactive isotopes are
very sensitive and so there are very strict rules about their use. I
do not see how they can throw this out.'

But Wilmshurst has become so frustrated at what he perceives as the
GMC's failure to deal with serious misconduct by doctors that he says
he is now going to refer the cases to the police.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, he stated: 'The only cases
considered by the GMC are ones where there is a strong possibility
that the doctor will be removed from the medical register if charges
are proved.

'As a result many allegations about doctors that the public considers
serious are dismissed by the GMC at the screening stage. I believe
that there is inappropriate rejection of serious allegations by
lenient screeners.'

He added: 'I intend to ask the police to investigate other cases that
the GMC has said were insufficiently serious to warrant disciplinary

Wilmshurst said he had complained to the GMC about a professor of
cardiology who had lied for years about his qualifications when
applying for posts as a senior registrar, an honorary consultant and
a senior lecturer. Wilmshurst claims that, although this was brought
to the attention of his university, they promoted him to professor.

The Ministry of Defence and the GMC declined to comment about the
allegations against the Institute of Naval Medicine before the case
has been heard. The GMC did, however, defend its record of dealing
with complaints against doctors.

A spokeswoman for the GMC said: 'If allegations are of a criminal
nature then they should be referred to the police. The GMC takes all
the cases referred to it seriously. Some go forward but some do not
because the evidence is not there or because the cases took place so
long ago there is no way of proving them.'