In an unusual show of support, Doctors in the United Kingdom are planning a protest outside the London offices of the General Medical Council (GMC) after a Nigerian-born paediatrician, Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba, was stripped of her medical licence.
Bawa-Garba was barred by the GMC for making fatal errors while caring for six-year-old Jack Adcock, who had sepsis, at Leicester Royal Infirmary in 2011.
The doctor was convicted of manslaughter through gross negligence in 2015 but was suspended from practising for just 12 months, which the General Medical Council appealed against. Now, the GMC won a legal bid to strike her from its register.
But a leading professional body claims the decision was partly motivated by racism.
The British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, which represents 5,000 doctors, said a white doctor in the same circumstances would have been treated more leniently.
Earlier, thousands of doctors have signed a letter protesting against the decision to strike off a doctor whose mistakes led a six-year-old boy to die from sepsis.
In the run-up to the appeal, around 800 doctors signed a letter supporting her. It was claimed she was being shielded by her peers after doctors last year said the pursuit of Bawa-Garba was ‘perpetuating an injustice’ against her.
Last week, despite their protestations, the initial decision by the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service not to strike Bawa-Garba off, but to give her a year’s suspension instead, was overturned.
However, 7,500 doctors have now signed a further petition, with the signatures collected over 24 hours following the overturned decision claiming it could put doctors off admitting mistakes in future.
Bawa-Garba made a catalogue of errors leading up to Jack’s death at Leicester Royal Infirmary in 2011. She had wrongly diagnosed him with gastroenteritis, when he had sepsis. She took three hours to examine X-rays revealing he had a chest infection, and then ignored blood tests showing signs of kidney problems.
But the new letter signed by doctors across the UK defends the 40-year-old paediatrician and expresses ‘deep-seated concerns’ about the consequences of her conviction and striking off.
It states: ‘The use against Dr Bawa-Garba of her recorded reflections on this event in a legal process will frighten doctors of all grades away from honest self-appraisal. In one move, this undoes years of positive cultural change within medical training.’
The doctors’ letter added: ‘Dr Bawa-Garba made mistakes, but to properly learn from these they must be viewed in the context in which she was working.
‘If we allow Jack Adcock’s death to be explained by the culpability of a single individual we can only lessen our chances of preventing a similar death in the future.’
However, Charlie Massey, chief executive of the GMC, defended its decision. He said: ‘It is really important that we differentiate between this case, where a doctor was convicted of gross negligence manslaughter, and everyday mistakes.
Dr Ramesh Mehta, president British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, who is also a paediatrician, said the GMC may have been partly influenced by the fact that Bawa-Garba, a Muslim who moved to Britain from her native Nigeria in 1994, wears a headscarf.
He said: “We are saying that racism is one of the parts of it, it’s not the only part.
“If it was a white doctor who was affected, we believe that the whole system and their approach to the case would have been different.”
The case has angered doctors and many are threatening to boycott their appraisals for fear of suffering the same fate.
The evaluations, which are submitted to doctors’ employers on a yearly basis, contain medics’ assessments of their own errors.
They are then used by each employer as a basis for submitting revalidation requests to the GMC that allow the respective practitioner to continue operating.
Many health staff have expressed fears they could face legal action if they admit making mistakes after it was reported that reflective statements submitted by Bawa-Garba as part of her appraisal, contributed to the loss of her medical licence.
Dr Alan Woodall, who chairs the 8,000 strong General Practice Survival (GPS) pressure group, told The Independent doctors would be ”frightened to reflect” on their own practice, following the GMC’s successful efforts to strike Dr Bawa-Garba from the register.
Jack, who had Down’s Syndrome and a heart condition, died of septic shock, hours after being admitted with sickness and vomiting.
He was seen by Bawa-Garba, the most senior doctor on the shift, who had just returned from 13 months of maternity leave.
She initially diagnosed him with a stomach bug, when he, in fact, had the life-threatening condition sepsis. Later, she failed to act on blood test results which showed he had a kidney infection.
On that shift, however, she was performing the roles of three doctors and overseeing six wards because the hospital was so understaffed.
Bawa-Garba, now 40, was initially handed a 12-month suspension by an independent panel, the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service, last June. But in an unprecedented move, the GMC overturned the ruling and Bawa-Garba was struck off on January 25.
London’s High Court heard there was a “catalogue” of errors in Jack’s care, that staff had missed signs of his infection and mistakenly thought he was under a do-not-resuscitate order.
Dr Bawa-Garba’s supporters have warned that she was being scapegoated for systemic problems in the NHS.
A crowdfunding campaign has raised more than £260,000 for a civil appeal against the High Court decision that allowed the GMC to strike her off the medical register.
In a letter to the British Medical Association, Dr Woodall said he had been contacted by “hundreds” of doctors who warned they would no longer take part in “meaningful written appraisal” after the High Court ruling.
He also called on the British Medical Association (BMA) to press the House of Commons health select committee to investigate whether the GMC was fit for purpose.