When professional arrogance costs lives

An inquest heard there were several opportunities to refer Martha Mills to intensive care but this did not happen. Photograph: Merope Mills


“Martha’s rule” would give patients and their families the right to ask for a second opinion – I can’t imagine why on earth this has not been done already. Martha’s can’t be the only death where the parent’s knowledge of their child’s reaction to illness was ignored. I remember a general secretary whose daughter had appendicitis – they kept being sent home, told it was nothing serious. It ended with an emergency operation to remove the offending appendix. She was fine in the end, but it was touch and go.

The vast majority of doctors I have met have been excellent. However, over 60% of doctors have still been educated by independent (private) schools – which means they may be arrogant, and we still have the culture of doctor knows best – I hope so, given all the training they have had. Nevertheless doctors need to appreciate that patients and their families are the ones who know how they feel and what is normal for their children.

I remember having a cannula inserted by a junior doctor – it was really uncomfortable – when I pointed this out, the doctor was irritated. So I spelt it out, “I had a spinal tap yesterday, that was fine; this isn’t” He got the message – you have to assume that given the complexity of their job, they might miss the obvious resource of checking procedures with the patient – after all they’re not vets! So, sometimes, you do have to politely spell it out.

I had a bad experience with a gynecologist – a woman who had a student with her. I have no problem with students having to get experience, but it was how it was done. I wasn’t introduced to him at all. The gynecologist just said the student will do the examination and left. I was expected to comply with having a man, whose name I didn’t know, shoving his hand up my vagina. I was deemed too unimportant even to introduce – if anyone ever tries that again, the student will get a crucial lesson in respect. If you don’t have the courtesy to introduce the student, I won’t comply with their practice!

I don’t have children; however, I can imagine just how frantic Martha’s parents must have been and the if onlys they face every minute of every day.

The bottom line is respect – respect your patients and their families as intelligent information resources who have rights over their own bodies.


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