NHS bureaucrats wrongly accused two leading heart surgeons of causing the deaths of dozens of patients, a coroner has found.
The reputation of the clinicians was left in tatters after a report into one of Britain’s largest teaching hospitals blamed them for the deaths of more than 60 patients.
St George’s University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in south London suspended the two surgeons and paid out hundreds of thousands of pounds in legal fees over claims of clinical malpractice and mistakes in the care of the 67 seriously ill patients.
It is understood the trust has also agreed to pay millions of pounds in damages to relatives of the dead.
But a coroner has since ruled in 20 of the cases heard so far that the patients were treated appropriately and that no blame for their deaths was to be attached to the surgeons, Professor Marjan Jahangiri and Dr Justin Nowell.
A friend of the two surgeons told The Telegraph: “Their names and their reputation as clinicians have been dragged through the mud over the issue of these tragic deaths.
“Neither Professor Jahangiri nor Dr Nowell [pictured below] were invited by the trust to give their side of the case, as experts in their field, so they were not allowed to mount a defence in an NHS panel process which had the potential to severely damage their careers.”
The latest in a series of inquests was held on Wednesday into the death of Arthur Stecka, a 75-year-old retired taxi driver, from Hampshire, at Westminster Coroner’s Court.
Mr Stecka underwent surgery for a severely abnormal aorta, but died of a cardiac arrest in October 2014 as a result of postoperative complications.
A review by an independent NHS Improvement Panel found failings in the care given to Mr Stecka by Professor Jahangiri and her team at St George’s.
However, after hearing several hours of evidence, Professor Fiona Wilcox, the senior coroner, overturned the review’s findings.
She said: “I find no failings of care. I find no criticism of the care delivered by the clinical team. The failings identified in the review have once again not been found after consideration of the evidence.
“I cannot find failings that contributed to the death. On the contrary, I find the care given by the staff of St George’s was excellent and beyond criticism.”
Professor Wilcox said she was concerned about the impact of the panel’s review on both the clinicians and on public confidence in St George’s Trust, the largest healthcare provider in south-west London, adding: “I can find nothing to support the finding written within the review of lack of robust relationships within the team.”
Friends of Mr Stecka’s have been left bewildered by her findings.
Cynthia Mingham, 83, from Waterlooville, Hants, pictured with Mr Stecka, below, said: “I don’t understand this. The hospital admitted liability and said it was their neglect. This isn’t about money or compensation. There was no reason for him to die.”
Credit: Family handout
The former production line supervisor, who was cared for by Mr Stecka for 32 years before his death, added: “He only went in for a routine procedure then suddenly we were told there was an emergency. I feel absolutely dreadful about what happened. I really miss him to this day. He was a lovely person who would do anything for you.”
Professor Jahangiri and Dr Nowell were suspended in 2018 after an internal inquiry into the cardiac surgery unit at St George’s concluded that “toxic” bickering between rival surgeons resulted in the death of patients.
Documents obtained under Freedom of Information legislation reveal that St George’s Trust has already paid out £940,000 in legal and HR costs in the cases of the two surgeons.
But a High Court judge ruled in August 2019 that no blame should be attached to the pair, who were subsequently reinstated by the trust after Mr Justice Nicklin granted them an interim injunction.
He said the suspension of Professor Jahangiri – the first female professor of cardiac surgery in Europe – was irrational, disproportionate and based on inadequate investigation.
The court heard how she was sent a dead animal and a decapitated doll as part of a “campaign of bullying and harassment” against her after she raised concerns about unsafe care.
The trust later apologised to Professor Jahangiri and Dr Nowell for suspending them, admitting it had failed to correctly follow its internal procedures.
Matters were complicated in March 2020 when a report commissioned by the trust concluded that 67 out of 202 patient deaths were “avoidable” and that there had been significant failings in their care.
The trust accepted the report’s findings in full and accepted liability for the 67 cases, which it referred to Her Majesty’s Coroner.
However, the coroner has rejected the NHS Improvement Panel’s findings in all 20 cases heard so far and has criticised both the panel and St George’s Trust for failing to obtain evidence from Professor Jahangiri and Dr Nowell.
In the case of Abraham D’Souza, who died after undergoing surgery for a heart condition by Professor Jahangiri, Professor Wilcox stated: “If not treated, there was a risk of cardiac arrest. His best treatment option was the operation. I am entirely satisfied that the patient died despite, not because of, treatment.”
In another case, that of Louise Catterall, who died in 2013, Professor Wilcox stated at the conclusion of the inquest into her death: “I do not find any failings in the patient’s care. I am entirely satisfied that this lady received appropriate and reasonable care.”
A spokesperson for St George’s Trust said: “The cardiac surgery service is now safe after the Trust took comprehensive action to improve the quality, leadership and culture in the unit and these improvements have been recognised by the Care Quality Commission.
“We accept the outcomes of the inquests held to date and our continuing focus is ensuring our patients receive the best possible care when undergoing heart surgery.”