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Surgeon Ian Paterson's case proves private hospitals need proper regulation

Paul McNeil

Following the conviction last month of rogue surgeon Ian Paterson, I'm relieved to hear that the Royal College of Surgeons has rightly called for a review of the way private hospitals are regulated.

It appears from the case heard last month at Nottingham Crown Court that breast surgeon Paterson was allowed to continue operating unchecked at the Little Aston and Parkway hospitals in the West Midlands for more than five years, despite performing what have now been revealed as substandard surgery on around 800 patients and unnecessary surgery on at least 17 other women.

Paterson has now been convicted of unlawfully wounding patients during breast surgery at private clinics in the West Midlands and is due to be sentenced this month. 

If any good can come from this catastrophic story, it is that surgical leaders have come out and voiced their concerns about patient safety generally in private hospitals and particularly the way they deal with patient safety information.

The Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) has written an open letter asking for private hospitals to face the same regulation as NHS hospitals in their reporting of unexpected deaths and serious injuries. It has also specifically questioned why none of Mr Paterson's colleagues did anything about Paterson's obvious malpractice, allowing him to continue operating so negligently.

Part of the problem with private hospitals is that surgeons who work there are not employees of the hospital in the same they are when they work for the NHS, meaning they are under less scrutiny when things go wrong and are not subject to the same level of ongoing in-house training expected of our NHS surgeons.

This allows people such as Paterson to remain isolated if they want to and to somehow fall off the radar of expected standards and to continue causing terrible harm.

As my recent case of Mr Robert Entenman at the privately run London Bridge hospital sadly illustrates, sub-standard performance does not only apply to surgeons but also nurses in high-risk areas such as the critical care unit.

Mr Entenman died when vital equipment attached to his ventilator was erroneously switched off by a nurse, who then failed to notice or react to what quickly became an emergency. Other nurses in the ICU were equally at fault. To make matters even worse, the Care Quality Commission, the body intended to regulate hospitals, simultaneously rated the London Bridge hospital as outstanding in a report prepared around the time of Mr Entenman's death.

A similar case occurred only a year earlier at the Harley Street clinic, another in the chain of hospitals also owned by US giant HCA International.

The NHS is currently in a critical condition and the next government must surely prioritise an overhaul of funding, training and staffing at the very least. But at the same time, private hospitals must not be allowed to escape the attention of regulators focused on the NHS and get away with sub-standard patient care.

Part of the problem of some private hospitals being allowed to hide behind a luxurious fa├žade is that many patients believe that because they are paying for a service, it automatically means it is better. Quite often that is simply not the case, with tragic consequences.

Find our more about private healthcare negligence.

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