Published: 13/06/2002, Volume II2, No.5809 Page 8 9
The Royal Hospitals trust in Belfast has been accused of 'sloppy practice and management' by Northern Ireland's human organs inquiry.
Although the inquiry found no malpractice to match that at Liverpool's Alder Hey Hospital, it criticises the trust for management failures over the way organs were taken and stored and its handling of questions from the public when the situation came to light.
The Northern Ireland Assembly has accepted the inquiry's recommendations in full and is taking immediate steps to introduce new legislation along the same lines as that proposed by the Redfern inquiry into organ retention at Alder Hey. This would require doctors to obtain informed consent for the removal of organs or face a criminal charge.
The report by the 15-month inquiry, set up in March 2001 by health minister Bairbre de Brun, found that the Royal had retained organs from post-mortems dating back over 30 years. Some were stored in a gatehouse and others in mobile unit on top of the Institute of Pathology.
In all, the Royal had retained organs from 73 adult, 361 paediatric and 657 neuropathological post-mortems. Of the paediatric cases, 151 predated 1970.
Despite being the regional paediatric pathology centre, there were no effective procedures for disposing of tissues no longer required. 'Suffice to say that the result of those practices was the retention of an excessive number of organs for no discernible purpose over many years, even decades, ' says the report.
A new consultant paediatric pathologist appointed in 1995 had improved some practices, but noone had investigated why organs were being kept or arranged for their proper disposal.
When the storage of organs became public knowledge in January 2001 it caused distress and suspicion that 'could and should have been avoided', the report says.
'In general terms, however, the distress is greater among those where organs of a loved one lay for years in containers for no reason which anybody can explain beyond sloppy practice and management.'
The Altnagelvin Hospitals trust also comes in for criticism.On 11 January 2001 it issued a press statement saying it had organs from only one post-mortem. Two weeks later it transpired that one consultant had retained organs from 44 adult and 15 paediatric post-mortems. Senior managers had no knowledge of this.
At the Royal, consultant paediatrician Claire Thornton was left to handle parents' enquiries singlehanded, taking more than 600 calls in two weeks and working 16 hours a day.
Trust managers were guilty of 'wishful thinking' in assuming that the level of enquiries would tail off and failed at senior level to intervene decisively.
Dr Thornton subsequently went on sick leave in January 2002, causing the Royal to suspend all routine paediatric post-mortems until her return on 27 May.
In a statement, the Royal Hospitals trust apologised for the 'unintentional distress caused by past medical procedures and systems' and for the failure to respond adequately to inquiries.
Ms de Brun said the report was a 'balanced, measured and thoughtful account' of past practice. She has taken immediate steps to implement all its recommendations.
Human organs inquiry. www. dhsspsni. gov. uk /publications