Surgery deaths must be thoroughly investigated

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2007, 12:00am

For all that modern medicine has achieved to save lives and restore health, operations still involve the risk of life-threatening complications. So the fact that three heart patients, including one aged 99, died while having the same procedure on the same surgeon's operating table at Queen Elizabeth Hospital within 10 days last month need not necessarily be a cause of concern.

What is worrying, however, are suggestions from some members of the medical profession that the circumstances surrounding these operations were not as they should have been, and that these are not isolated cases. They say there were problems with the quality of the service involved, and doctors have described the three cases as the tip of the iceberg, pointing to pressures on the public health system, which they say is close to collapse.

A former senior medical officer of the hospital's cardiology department said he quit because workloads had reached a dangerous level that jeopardised patient safety and that there was pressure on surgeons to save time spent on surgery because of long waiting lists. A frontline doctor in the same team said it had suffered a brain drain to the private sector. None of this criticism inspires confidence in the standard of treatment and care.

The full facts of the three cases concerned have not yet been made public. The hospital's management says it does not regard the three deaths as medical blunders and has confidence in the surgeon involved, who continues to operate. As the Hospital Authority points out the operations - angioplasties to clear obstructed coronary arteries - were high risk in these particular cases. In the case of the 99-year-old woman, that is unquestionably so.

But the three deaths and, especially, the serious concerns about working conditions raised by members of the medical profession need to be thoroughly investigated. The hospital says it has referred the cases to the coroner. The circumstances should be carefully scrutinised to see if follow-up action is needed. Confidence in the health system depends on making sure that the causes of such incidents are fully explained and understood.