National inquiry into private health practices launched to prevent repeat ‘shocking’ malpractice like jailed breast cancer surgeon Ian Paterson

Alex Matthews-King
Surgeon Paterson was jailed for 20 years after being found guilty on 17 counts of wounding with intent: PA

The Government has announced an independent national inquiry into the private health sector and insurance providers to prevent a repeat of the “shocking” malpractice by surgeon Ian Paterson.

The Department of Health has expanded the scope of the inquiry into Paterson, a consultant breast surgeon who was jailed for carrying out unnecessary operations on patients, after meeting with victims families and being warned of “broader issues” in private healthcare.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt had initially pledged a “comprehensive and focused inquiry” into the specific failings around Paterson’s case.

Its expanded remit will also look at:

  • Who has overall responsibility for assuring the quality and safety of care in the private sector, including ensuring regular vetting of care standards;
  • Information sharing and the reporting of any concerns between the private sector and the NHS;
  • The role of insurers of independent sector healthcare providers, including how it shares the information it holds on the scope and volume of private doctors’ work, and the adequacy of any medical negligence cover;
  • And whether health sector regulator the Care Quality Commission needs tougher inspection powers to enforce this.

Paterson was found guilty of 17 counts of wounding with intent in May this year, after falsely telling his victims they required surgery for breast cancer, or performing incomplete mastectomies that saw the cancer return.

He was initially sentenced to 15 years but this was extended to 20 after a judge ruled this was “unduly lenient”.

Around 750 women and men who were treated by the surgeon will receive a portion of a £37m settlement fund set up by the Government in September.

The inquiry will not have statutory power, which means it will not be able to compel witnesses to give evidence. But the Department of Health said it was focused instead on learning lessons swiftly.

It will be led by the Rt Reverend Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, who said that the grievous harm inflected by Paterson gave rise to serious questions that “remain unanswered”.

“It is vital that the Inquiry be informed by the concerns of former patients of Ian Paterson and their representatives,” Mr James said. “The interests of all patients, whether they seek treatment in the NHS or the private sector, should be at the heart of this inquiry and I will do my very best in the interest of those affected and the public.”

Paterson was appointed as a consultant at Solihull Hospital in 1998, which became part of the Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust (HEFT). He also carried out surgery at private hospitals owned by Bupa from 1993 and then Spire Healthcare from 2007 onwards.

Both the NHS and Spire suspended Paterson in 2011 and he was struck off the medical register this year.

Reviews already completed by Spire, in 2014, and HEFT, in 2013, identified issues with data sharing between the private and NHS sector after questions were raised about a consultant.

They also found a need for private hospitals to submit data regarding activity and outcome to national and regional databases.

Philip Dunne, health minister, said: “Ian Paterson’s malpractice sent shockwaves across the health system due to the seriousness and extent of his crimes, and I am determined to make sure lessons are learnt from this so that it never happens again in the independent sector or the NHS.

“I believe an independent, non-statutory inquiry, overseen by Bishop Graham James, is the right way forward to ensure that all aspects of this case are brought to light and lessons learned so we can better protect patients in the future.”

Responding to news of the inquiry, Professor Derek Alderson, president of the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS), said: “Ian Paterson abused the trust placed in him by patients. He performed unproven and unacceptable operations on many women.

“What is also clear is that he was often working in isolation. Teamwork and shared decision making is now standard practice in healthcare but there is more that can be done to correct poor practice in both the NHS and private sectors.

“It is right that the Government now moves forward with a review of the many issues raised by his criminal behaviour.”

It added that the RCS has also begun work to improve the collection and publication of data from private providers which, at present, are “minimal”.