this week

An independent inquiry has been accused of producing a 'whitewash' report into allegations of serious failings at a radiology department once regarded as a flagship unit.

The inquiry was commissioned by the then North Thames regional office to look into concerns about the imaging department at Hammersmith Hospitals trust in west London.

It found 'little evidence' of clinical audit, 'poor morale' and 'unsatisfactory arrangements' for magnetic resonance imaging, when it reported last month.

But it concluded that 'despite a number of long-standing difficulties, the department is providing an excellent clinical service to patients'.

Past and present staff who spoke to HSJ criticised the inquiry, led by former president of the Royal College of Radiologists Dr Michael Brindle, for disregarding 'evidence of past problems'.

Attempts to contact Dr Brindle were fielded by the new London regional office. A spokesperson said the terms of the inquiry had been 'quite strict' and were intended to find out 'what the current state of play was' rather than reopen an earlier internal review.

Both the inquiry and review heard that the unit had built up a backlog of thousands of x-rays which had not been reported to the doctors responsible for the patients' care. Consultants told HSJ that 8,700 scans and x-rays have still not been reported.

But trust chief executive John Cooper said this week no reports due within the last year were still outstanding. He admitted that 'some of the routine reports from more than 12 months remain'.

Hammersmith was lauded by health secretary Frank Dobson as the UK's first 'film-less hospital' when he launched a£22m computerised picture-archiving communications system in 1997.

But the inquiry was told that the implementation of PACS led to many of the delays, and staff have repeatedly claimed that poor management added to the problems.

The department contains staff from the trust, Imperial College school of medicine and the Medical Research Council.

The internal review warned that unless 'management difficulties' were resolved 'the group does not believe that the stable functioning of the department can be assured'.

Medical Research Council medical physicist Professor Ian Young told HSJ: 'The trust wanted a complete whitewash and that is what they've got [with the inquiry].'

Professor Young, who still works part-time at the trust, claimed that the unreported scans were 'a time-bomb waiting to go off' which might affect patient outcomes.

Christine England, former deputy clerical manager, said: ' The panel didn't have the guts to reflect the evidence given to it, and they've produced a watered down set of recommendations.'

Two groups have been set up by the trust to look at the recommendations of both the inquiry and the internal review.

The trust has also appointed an extra consultant and is looking for funds to employ additional staff. It is developing protocols for deciding which images to report.

Professor Young said that departmental managers had 'blamed people who try to raise the problems and engaged in a cover-up'.

Mr Cooper said: 'I reject completely the notion that anybody on our staff or on Imperial College staff has been victimised as a consequence of whistleblowing.'

The trust's imaging clinical director Professor David Allison, told HSJ he had 'no plans' to resign and was 'pleased that the report exonerated us'.

But one radiology consultant asked: 'How can a department without audit, with low morale, remote management, unsafe on-call arrangements and with, at one time, 11,000 unreported films, be safe?'