Delivery of safe healthcare currently faces unprecedented challenges in the UK and globally. This arises, at least partly, from a rising involvement of the criminal law in the investigation of medical errors apparently conflicting with the need to respect a “duty of candour”. As a result, doctors face enormous pressures in fear of being blamed for medical errors. David Sellu is a consultant surgeon who was convicted for gross negligence manslaughter in late 2013 after the death of a patient in a private hospital.I (@DrJennyVaughan) was the medical lead for a group of David Sellu’s friends as we launched a campaign to overturn his conviction. There has never been a successful ‘out of time’ appeal in this area of the law so we were dealing with almost impossible odds from the start. The positive result was extraordinary, both for David and our whole profession (www.medicalmanslaughter.co.uk). Since these events, I have supported other doctors facing criminal conviction, such as the paediatrician Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba, through my work with the Doctor’s Association UK (DAUK, @TheDA_UK). Thousands of doctors crowd-funded a campaign and successfully overturned a court decision to erase her from the UK medical register. Her case proved to be a lightning rod in the UK for a profession at breaking point. Many healthcare staff are working on critically under-staffed wards and in under-resourced departments, with an increasingly unmanageable workload.
DAUK have since launched a “Learn Not Blame” campaign to improve safety for patients and healthcare professionals. We believe that the involvement of the criminal justice system in these cases often does not allow an appreciation of the interplay of individuals within complex health systems. We also remain particularly concerned that a recent analysis of conviction trends shows an excessive conviction rate of black and minority ethnic (BME) healthcare staff.