A heart surgeon at a Welsh hospital where dozens of patients have died while on the waiting list for surgery has been suspended for 15 months on bullying allegations, we can reveal.
Opposition politicians and the British Medical Association expressed concern at the length of time cardiothoracic surgeon Peter O’Keefe has been suspended on full pay from his duties at the University Hospital of Wales (UHW) in Cardiff.
Last week the Royal College of Surgeons published a damning report on the UHW, saying there was an unacceptable mortality rate for heart patients. According to the hospital’s own figures, 43 patients have died in the last five years while waiting for heart surgery.
A political source told us about Mr O’Keefe’s suspension. The source said: “It is ridiculous for a cardiac surgeon to be suspended for such a long time for something that has nothing to do with his clinical competency and should have been sorted out administratively within a short space of time. It is bound to have had an impact on waiting times at the hospital.”
Welsh Conservative Shadow Health Minister Darren Millar said: “Heart surgery is an area that we already know has been blighted by catastrophic failings and deaths while on waiting lists at UHW. News of a cardiac surgeon away from his post for well over a year due to a disciplinary procedure will only serve to worry communities further.
“I urge the health board to properly explain why this process has taken so long and to fully disclose all costs involved. Allegations of this nature should be dealt with swiftly and efficiently – in the interests of both the public purse and all those involved.”
Dr Richard Lewis, Welsh Secretary of the British Medical Association, said: “BMA Cymru Wales has been negotiating with NHS Wales for some considerable time now on a new disciplinary procedure for hospital doctors in Wales which we were in a position to agree well over 12 months ago, but employers have been dragging their feet.
“This would introduce a shortened procedure which is aimed at minimising the length of time key staff are kept off work – as it is appreciated what a detrimental effect this can have on delivery of health services.”
He added: “We are aware of a lengthy suspension of a doctor linked to cardiac services in Cardiff and the Vale University Health Board that was not related to clinical performance. In our view medical suspensions in Wales are unnecessarily and unduly prolonged and inevitably have an adverse impact on the delivery of health services.
“The recent damning report by the Royal College of Surgeons branding cardiac surgery services in Cardiff and the Vale University Health Board dangerous, as a result of the significant delays faced by patients on the cardiac surgery waiting list, is sober reading.
“BMA Cymru Wales is unable to confirm whether the suspension of this individual doctor has contributed to the deterioration in these services.”
Medical director of Cardiff and Vale University Health Board Dr Graham Shortland said: “We can confirm that a surgeon has been suspended since April 2012. We have been following the Welsh Government’s disciplinary procedure in order to ensure there is a full and fair investigation.
“The current advice, when cases go to a disciplinary inquiry panel, is that an independent panel has to be established, in accordance with the guidelines. This has taken a number of months so far, due to the difficulty in bringing together a legally qualified chair, a senior clinician and an independent person for what is likely to be a four day hearing.
“We do not take disciplinary steps lightly, but believe that when serious allegations are made the University Health Board has a duty to patients, staff and the people we serve to investigate such allegations thoroughly.
“In the meantime, the individual’s surgical work has been covered on a locum basis.”