Scaremongering from medical experts can cost lives

Wednesday 3 February 2016

Picture credit: twitter/@Daily_Express

“Nothing can prepare you for seeing your baby in a coffin – but the worst thing is knowing he could have been saved.”

Those were the heartrending words of Melissa Mead, pictured, this week after NHS England published a report cataloguing the series of appalling blunders which led to the death of her 12-month old baby William.

As this tear-stained but impressively composed young mother talked to a news reporter about her boy, home video footage of William punctuated her dignified remarks. Those images were absolutely heartbreaking. This baby was bouncing with health and happiness, a gorgeous, picturepostcard little boy. And yet failures in the NHS meant that he died needlessly.

It wasn’t because of an accident or a sudden overnight virus that advanced too rapidly to treat. William’s parents had taken him to their GP’s surgery four times over a period of six weeks, coughing and vomiting. Four times he was misdiagnosed and dismissed. In fact William had pneumonia and was developing an abscess on his lungs. He became steadily worse and finally the Meads called the out-of-hours healthcare line 111.

The GP who eventually responded had no access to William’s records and thought he was better left to sleep. The next morning, still at home, William died. The abscess in the baby’s lungs had developed into sepsis, a very serious condition in which the body’s entire immune system is overwhelmed by infection.

Not one single GP, or the 111 helpline, diagnosed this deadly condition. There has been fierce and justified criticism of the health line. But what alarms me even more than their incompetence is that his parents took him to see doctors again and again, with the same symptoms. How can a doctor miss signs of an infection as serious as this? Why didn’t they listen to the parents’ concerns? And why, oh why, was he not given antibiotics? They would have saved his life.

I fear that the answer is that GPs have become reluctant to prescribe antibiotics after the Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies criticised doctors heavily for handing them out, painting an apocalyptic vision of medicine retreating to the Dark Ages as superbugs fail to respond to drugs because of overuse.

Dame Sally has an aptitude for publicity. She gives good sound bites, as we discovered when she told us that there is no safe level of alcohol and that we should not drink at all. Her dramatic warnings made headlines for days. She was probably delighted. Result! But scaremongering leads to confusion and indecision.

Doctors, bruised by her warnings over antibiotics, may hesitate too long. And in William’s case, too late. My heart bleeds for Melissa and Paul Mead. They are intelligent, caring parents. They did everything they could to save their son. But nobody listened.

Read more in Richard and Judy's column for the Daily Express here.
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