Sellafield body parts inquiry legal hitch

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Sellafield body parts inquiry has hit a major legal hitch after a doctor suggested his patients’ medical records should remain confidential – even though they are dead.

Michael Redfern QC is leading an inquiry into claims organs and tissue were secretly removed from workers at Sellafield and other nuclear plants without the knowledge of bereaved loved ones.

There is also evidence that tissue samples were taken from non-nuclear workers in the county, including road accident victims and miscarried babies.

Now the medical profession has raised doubts over whether the inquiry should get access to the medical records of patients who died years ago.

The High Court judge has now been asked to authorise the records’ disclosure to Mr Redfern and his team, along with “stakeholders” in the inquiry, including the British Nuclear Group.

The test case has been brought to court by Dr Nicholas Lewis, who works at Aldermaston and is custodian of 30,000 occupational health records on former employees at the AWE.

Whilst anxious to co-operate fully with the inquiry, the court heard Dr Lewis wants a court declaration that he will not be in breach of his confidentiality obligations if he discloses medical records to the inquiry.

His barrister, Angus Moon QC, told London’s High Court that patient confidentiality was in this case outweighed by public interest.

He reassured the judge the records would only be disclosed to the inquiry team and relevant stakeholders.

He said names of patients would not be published without their families’ consent and any family which refuses to give authority would not have their loved one’s records disclosed.

Jeremy Roussak, for the Department of Health, also argued the records should be disclosed.

He said 14 families had been in touch with the inquiry after contacting a Bright Nuclear Group helpline and all agreed to the disclosure of their deceased relatives’ medical records.

Although arguing the records can be disclosed “for medical purposes” under existing regulations, Mr Roussak said it had to be remembered dead bodies were once “living, breathing human beings” and had to be treated with dignity.

He told the judge some families had expressed “strong feelings” that it is “wrong, offensive and repugnant” for dead bodies to be treated in any way “other than the minimum that the law allows”, that is simply to ascertain the cause of death.

A dead body is not “public property”, said Mr Roussak, who added: “A patient who is dead is plainly not capable of receiving treatment, but is capable of receiving care.”

The barrister said: “We are dealing entirely with records of people who are dead and the question is whether a duty of confidentiality persists after death.

General Medical Council’s ethical guidelines state that patient confidentiality must be respected, even after death, and, quoting from the Hippocratic Oath, Mr Roussak said: “I will respect the secrets that are confided in me, even after the patient has died”.

However, observing that the patients concerned died between 1955 and the early 1990s, Mr Roussak said the duty of confidentiality “decays with the death and becomes less forceful over time”.

He supported Mr Moon’s arguments that the public interest weighs in favour of the medical records of the “dead confidees” being disclosed to the inquiry, along with “stakeholders” so that they can examine and comment upon them.

Those stakeholders include the Medical Research Council, the Health Protection Agency, the British Nuclear Group and the United Kingdom Energy Authority.

Recognising the importance of the case, Mr Justice Foskett reserved his decision until a later date.

He said he would give his ruling as soon as possible.

Posted in |
Tamara Jones (not verified) Says:
Thu, 2008-09-25 22:48

I honestly can't believe that something like this can happen in a workplace. It's almost like they're not getting the proper respect post-Morten and it's upsetting. At least it's a relief to know that their identities will not be disclosed w/o family consent. What I do feel for are those who have passed away in the 50's who don't have the same disclosure rules imposed on them as those who have passed away recently. Hopefully if their IDs are exposed, that his/her descendants do not find out about it.