12/12/2013 09:33 GMT | Updated 11/02/2014 05:59 GMT

Gynaecologist Put 'On Watch' to Protect Public Safety

A Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist working at hospitals in the North East of England has effectively been put 'on watch' for 12 months by the General Medical Council (GMC) after being found to have caused patients unnecessary suffering by making a series of avoidable mistakes.

On 17th October 2013, the GMC held that a number of allegations of substandard medical treatment made against Dr Benjamin Ononeze while working at the Darlington Memorial Hospital amounted to "serious misconduct". The GMC concluded that the unnecessary removal of organs, leaving a swab in a patient following a hysterectomy and the inappropriate use of forceps and vacuum cups during the delivery of babies all constituted substandard treatment. Worryingly, some of these mistakes can be categorized as 'never events' ie inexcusable mistakes, which the NHS has itself should never ever happen.

But are these mistakes to which Dr Ononeze admitted just the tip of the iceberg? Dr Ononeze was employed by the County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust and also worked at the Bishop Auckland Hospital, the Spire Washington Hospital and the BMI Woodlands Hospital. The extent to which women and/or their babies may be suffering ongoing problems and complications after being treated by him is very worrying indeed, especially given the fact that reporting 'never events' has not always been as transparent as it is today.

There has been a sharp rise in the number of patients who have experienced 'never events', some of which are potentially fatal. In 2011/12, the number of 'never events' reported by NHS service providers was 299, up from 163 in the previous year - an 84% increase. While this increase may in part be due to heightened awareness of the need for transparency, it is still very concerning. In the drive to increase transparency further, in October this year the Department of Health introduced a requirement for NHS Trusts to publish such errors on a quarterly basis for each of their hospitals.

Earlier this year, in his examination of the quality of care at Stafford Hospital, Robert Francis QC highlighted the need to address what he termed a 'culture of fear' among NHS staff in reporting misconduct or malpractice and called for a duty of openness and candour. NHS organisations have been told in no uncertain terms that it is not acceptable to suppress complaints or attempt to hide sub-standard practice under the carpet. Historically, there has always been a deep-rooted fear among healthcare professionals to speak openly about concerns in patient care. Regarded as 'whistleblowing', their fear is largely because of the unacceptable way in which some individuals have been treated in the past. In 1991, Graham Pink, a nurse who worked on a geriatric ward at Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport was sacked for highlighting concerns about understaffing which compromised patient safety.

In this case, it is quite possible that healthcare professionals who worked alongside Dr Ononeze were aware that errors were being made but remained silent or delayed reporting their concerns for fear of losing their jobs or being disciplined. Dr Ononeze had been working at the Darlington Memorial Hospital since January 2005 and the earliest allegation of substandard care raised by the GMC dated back to February 2011, some 2 years 8 months prior to the date of the GMC hearing.

It is vital that in these situations, healthcare workers are empowered to speak out openly and honestly about poor standards of care confident in the knowledge that not only will their concerns will be listened to and acted upon. They also need to know that their actions will not impact negatively on their careers. Any women that may have been mistreated by Dr Ononeze should come forward and seek professional independent advice, rather than relying on any assurances the treating hospital and its NHS Trust may give. It is only by encouraging openness and honesty that problems can be correctly addressed and ultimately such 'never events' can be avoided and the standard of care improved.