Patients are dying because managers are kept in the dark about doctors infected with the hepatitis B virus, a trust chair has warned.
Geoffrey Drake, chair of Gwynedd Hospitals trust, spoke out after an inquest returned an accidental death verdict on Blodwen Jenkins, who caught the liver disease from a surgeon at his hospital.
Mr Drake called on ministers to publish 'as a matter of urgency' a review of guidelines on hepatitis B-infected doctors and nurses.
'The health secretary should add his support for urgent completion of the review before another patient dies unnecessarily,' Mr Drake said.
Six patients have died after catching hepatitis B from health workers since Department of Health guidelines were issued in 1993.
The directions recommend that workers with active hepatitis B infection should not perform procedures such as surgery where the patient's 'open tissues' may be exposed to the blood of a healthcare worker.
But the guidelines fail to give managers or patients the right to know if a doctor or nurse is carrying the virus.
The inquest heard that Mrs Jenkins, 83, could have been treated for the disease if surgeon Sanjay Ingley had reported cutting his finger during a hip replacement operation in 1997.
Mr Ingley, who no longer practises in the UK, was found guilty of serious professional misconduct by the General Medical Council for failing to notify hospital staff of the incident.
Mr Drake wrote to health secretary Frank Dobson after Mrs Jenkins' death. 'We are potentially employing doctors with hepatitis without knowing about it,' he said.
'Even if the occupational health service is aware, under medical confidentiality they can't tell the trust managers. And even if managers are aware, we can't tell patients a doctor has hepatitis.'
Public health minister Tessa Jowell responded to Mr Drake's letter and said the review by the advisory group that drew up the original guidance 'would be taken forward as quickly as possible'.
But imposing 'a blanket restriction' on health workers carrying the hepatitis B virus would mean losing staff 'who pose no real risk to patients', she said. It 'might have adverse consequences for the availability of treatment for patients in some areas'.
A GMC spokesperson said the DoH had not passed the review of the guidelines to the GMC for comment. But doctors were entitled to keep their own illness secret, she added. 'Doctors don't sacrifice their right to confidential medical care just because they are doctors.'
The GMC instructs doctors who have conditions that may put patients at risk to 'take and follow advice from a consultant in occupational health' on work practices.
The spokesperson said that when all else failed, occupational health physicians could have 'a duty to divulge information to protect the public' if doctors ignored their advice and continued to carry out 'exposure-prone procedures'.