Breast Surgeon Carried Out Unnecessary Operations: What we can learn from the trial of Ian Paterson
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A breast surgeon has been found to have carried out unnecessary operations by a criminal court. Ian Paterson carried out life-changing operations at NHS and private hospitals in Birmingham with no good medical reason.
He was found to have told some women they had breast cancer when they did not. In other cases he exaggerated the risk and encouraged women to have surgery. He told some women they had ‘pre-cancerous’ lumps which needed to be removed when in fact they were harmless.
What else did Ian Paterson do?
Besides the unnecessary operations he carried out ‘cleavage-sparing mastectomies’. Where women had breast cancer and needed a breast removed, he left some breast tissue in place to achieve a better cosmetic result. This was against guidelines and left women at higher risk of their cancer returning. When this came to light some women needed more surgery. In some cases sadly the cancer returned.
How many women were affected?
10 women gave evidence at the trial of the devastating effect Mr Paterson’s treatment had on their lives.
Investigations into Mr Paterson’s conduct have been taking place for some time. A number of his patients are making claims against him for damages. An NHS Trust is said to have paid out £17.8m in damages and legal costs.
This sort of finding by a criminal court against a surgeon is highly unusual. The NHS tries to ensure that patients with cancer are treated quickly and effectively. Many doctors will feel that he has let down not just his patients but his profession.
Questions about supervision
The case raises questions about levels of supervision both at the hospitals where he practiced. It also highlights the risks of not managing breast cancer correctly. The aim of mastectomy surgery (removal of the breast) is usually to cure cancer or to prevent it from developing. Leaving breast tissue in place left these women at risk.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. 50,000 cases are diagnosed each year. The have been a number of advances in treatment in recent years and survival rates are improving. Although a large number of women were affected by Mr Paterson’s conduct, it is rare to come across situations like this.
Common errors that lead to cancer Diagnosis delays
However there are still some common errors which lead to delays in diagnosis and for some patients these can be very serious. These include delays by GPs in referring patients, failures to carry out adequate examinations and mistakes in interpreting ultrasound, mammograms and biopsies. Hospitals need to learn from what has happened. One was would be better reporting and supervision systems to prevent surgeons like Mr Paterson acting against their patients’ interests. It is also important to ensure that we learn from past errors and give cancer patients the best possible care.