MORE than 450 lives were cut short at Gosport War Memorial Hospital between 1988 and 2000 by the “institutionalised practice” of overprescribing opiate painkillers to elderly patients, an independent inquiry led by a former Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd James Jones, has found.
Relatives who complained suffered years of official obfuscation, Bishop Jones said on Wednesday.
The report of the Gosport Independent Panel was published on Wednesday morning after a four-year, £14-million investigation into the deaths of hundreds of patients under the care of the GP Dr Jane Barton. A further 200 people whose records were now lost or incomplete were likely to have been affected by the “culture of shortening lives” at the hospital, it says.
Bishop Jones, who formerly chaired the Hillsborough Independent Panel, said that documents revealed “an institutionalised practice of the shortening of lives through prescribing and administering opioids without medical justification”.
Dr Barton, who is 69, was found guilty by the General Medical Council in 2009 of serious professional misconduct for overprescribing diamorphine to at least 12 of her patients between 1996 and 1999. She was not struck off, but retired soon afterwards.
She maintains that she had worked “under pressure” in a hospital that was underfunded and understaffed, and acted in the interests of her patients.
The Gosport panel examined more than 100,000 documents, including more than 800 death certificates signed by Dr Barton, and spoke to more than 100 families involved. “The documents seen by the panel show that, for a 12-year period, a clinical assistant, Dr Barton, was responsible for the practice of prescribing which prevailed on the wards,” Bishop Jones said.
Her colleagues and others, including official regulatory bodies, had failed to act on or investigate allegations of misconduct, the report says.
An earlier review, commissioned by the Department of Health and conducted by Professor Richard Baker in 2003, concluded that the hospital’s regime had “almost certainly shortened the lives of some”. But the review was not published by the Government for another ten years, pending the results of inquests into the deaths.
Bishop Jones’s report does not press for a criminal investigation, or refer any findings to the police or the Crown Prosecutions Service (CPS); but it urges the Health Secretary, the Home Secretary, the Attorney General, and the Chief Constable of Hampshire Police to recognise the “significance” of the findings, and to “act accordingly”.
The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, apologised for the “catalogue of failures” by the Department of Health, the police, and the NHS at that time, and the harm caused to the families. The Prime Minister described the report as “tragic and deeply troubling” during PMQs on Wednesday.
A copy of the report was given to the bereaved families in Portsmouth Cathedral before it was made public. The families left floral tributes to the deceased outside the cathedral. These included a picture of Gladys Richards, who died at Gosport Hospital in 1998, aged 91, after being given opiates and sedatives. Her daughter, Gillian McKenzie, was the first bereaved relative to approach the police.
The three police investigations carried out by Hampshire Police between 1998 and 2006 are described in the Gosport report as “consistently poor”. A spokeswoman for the force, Chief Constable Olivia Pinkney, said that investigations had not produced enough evidence for the CPS to prosecute.
Bishop Jones writes in his foreword: “Over the many years during which the families have sought answers to their legitimate questions and concerns, they have been repeatedly frustrated by senior figures. The obfuscation by those in authority has often made the relatives of those who died angry and disillusioned.”