Justin Stebbing: London cancer doctor suspended for 9 months after misconduct hearing

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(Lynne Cameron/PA) (PA Wire)
(Lynne Cameron/PA) (PA Wire)

An eminent cancer doctor has been suspended from practising for nine months but escaped being struck off after being found guilty of misconduct.

Professor Justin Stebbing, who worked primarily in the private sector in Harley Street but also at Imperial College NHS trust, was told of the sanction on Monday by the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service.

He is currently on holiday in the Caribbean and his barrister, Mary O’Rourke QC, said: “He is not intending to appeal.”

She had previously told the tribunal that a lengthy suspension was likely to result in him losing his contract at Imperial College London university.

On Monday afternoon, as the panel reconvened to decide whether to agree to the General Medical Council’s request to make the suspension start immediately, Ms O’Rourke requested a delay to enable Professor Stebbing to “put his affairs in order” for a “seamless departure”.

But later on Monday the tribunal decided that the suspension should start immediately.

Panel chairwoman Margaret Obi said in a written statement: “The tribunal determined that an immediate order of suspension is necessary for the protection of the public and is otherwise in the public interest.”

Professor Stebbing had previously admitted adopting a “cavalier” approach in the way he treated some patients. He also admitted sending “inappropriate” emails to a dying patient he nicknamed LMT (Little Miss Trouble).

Documents published by the MPTS on Monday morning announced the nine-month suspension.

It shows the panel rejected erasing Professor Stebbing from the medical register and instead decided on a nine-month suspension as there was a public interest in permitting him to return to practice “as soon as possible”.

Tribunal chair Hassan Khan said: “The tribunal took the view that a period of suspension would send a clear signal to Professor Stebbing, the public, and the wider profession in order to reaffirm the standards of conduct and behaviour expected of all registered doctors.

“The tribunal considered the mitigating factors in this case, including that the earliest relevant events took place approximately seven years ago, that Professor Stebbing has shown genuine remorse, has acknowledged his wrongdoing, and has taken considerable steps towards remediation.

“The tribunal also noted, based on the testimonial evidence, that Professor Stebbing is a highly skilled, competent, and dedicated consultant oncologist.

“Any period less than nine months would undermine the tribunal’s duty to uphold the high standards of conduct required by the profession and to maintain trust and confidence in the medical profession.”

In a week of hearings to determine the sanction, Ms O’Rourke said Professor Stebbing no longer wanted to keep private the problems with his mental health at the time of his dishonesty.

The tribunal ruled last month, after numerous hearings over two years that, his fitness to practise was impaired.

At the most recent sanction hearings, Sharon Beattie, QC, for the General Medical Council, reminded the tribunal that it had previously expressed “ongoing concern in relation to patient safety”.

She said the incidents before the tribunal took place between 2014 and 2017 and said there was a “persistent course of misconduct including persistent dishonesty”.

This included offering toxic treatments to dying patients where there was no realistic benefit.

In one case, there was a failure to discuss the risks and benefits and no ceiling of care, which deprived the patient of a “dignified death”.

The dishonesty related to the alteration of a document and a Bupa insurance form.

Ms Beattie said that Professor Stebbing had deliberately or recklessly disregarded good medical principles or regard for patient safety and showed a persistent lack of insight.

But the tribunal received a large number of testimonials – totalling about 1,000 pages - in support of Professor Stebbing, including from other medics and patients or relatives of patients who had died.

Mark Dransfield, whose wife died after receiving treatment from Professor Stebbing, said: “It is my opinion that Professor Stebbing is one of the most gifted oncologists this country has to offer. This man is not driven by money but by a will to try and ensure that people can fulfil their life expectancy.”

Dr Nicolas Beechey-Newman, consultant surgeon and clinical director, Harley Street Breast Clinic, said he shared many breast cancer patients with Professor Stebbing.

“Of all the medical oncologists in central London I choose to refer most of my breast cancer patients to Prof Stebbing,” he said.

“I want the very best for my private patients with breast cancer and I am convinced that there is no better medical oncologist in London.”

Professor Stebbing said he expected his contract with Imperial to end if he were unable to perform a clinical role. He expected he would be unable to continue only as a scientist rather than also as a clinician.

He said he currently had about 150 NHS patients and a “handful” of private patients. He has been working under supervision while his case was investigated.

He also feared he would be unable to complete a number of research projects, including into an early warning for breast cancer and work on Covid.

Ms O’Rourke said on Monday afternoon that Professor Stebbing had received a request from Imperial College Healthcare to assist as a number of oncologists were absent due to the spread of Omicron.

In a recent witness statement, Professor Stebbing said: “If suspended, I would hope in the future to resume clinical translational research studies as part of a team, linking the laboratory to the clinic and vice versa, if I could gain institutional employment again. If erased, I think none of these sorts of integrated studies would ever be possible again.”

The MPTS ruling on Monday said: “The tribunal was satisfied that Professor Stebbing’s failings, although serious, are not fundamentally incompatible with his continued registration, as he has demonstrated that he is willing to remediate his misconduct and is capable of doing so.

“As such, the tribunal concluded that he should be given the opportunity to practice medicine again.”

Imperial College NHS Trust and Imperial College London have been approached for comment.

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