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Niall Hunter: After kidney op tragedy will our health service actually learn anything?

CAN we trust our doctors and hospitals?

After the evidence given at the Medical Council hearing on the blunder where the wrong kidney was removed from a young boy, many of us will have fears about the safety of our health system.

Often, after the latest scandal, we are reassured that catastrophes are rare and that you cannot legislate for every error.

In an ideal world, most people would agree.

However, a recent EU survey showed that 55pc of Irish people believe patients can be harmed by hospital care.


After so many scandals, reassurances that things are getting better aren't always that... well, reassuring.

The surgeons Martin Corbally and Sri Paran were cleared of misconduct.

But a little boy lost a healthy kidney.

He's been left with a poorly-functioning one -- and facing a possible organ transplant in time to come.

So who's fault is that?

Every time a patient enters a hospital, he or she effectively signs a contract which should guarantee quality care, and reassure the patient that systems are in place to minimise "adverse events".

For Jennifer Stewart and Oliver Conroy, this solemn contract was reneged on.

Most of us who go into hospital will be looked after well and usually nothing untoward will happen to us.

But our safety system is more fragile than most of us imagine.

Our overworked, under-resourced, hierarchical and often dysfunctionally Victorian hospital system is a breeding ground for errors, inefficiencies, poor communication, and ultimately, nightmare scenarios.

The ultimate responsibility of course lies with the HSE and the Minister Mary Harney, both of whom have had several years to get the systems right.

But the Medical Council hearing into the tragedy of the kidney blunder could serve as a text book on how not to run a safe and effective hospital service.

The Medical Council's Fitness to Practise Committee said there were "a series of catastrophic errors".


Many would feel this is an understatement. The boy's parents have stressed that lessons had to be learned from their ordeal. But will they be learned?

Worryingly, not all the recommendations of a probe into the incident, which reported in October 2008, have been implemented.

This is not an isolated event.

Some of the safety recommendations for hospitals following the Neary probe of 2006, and a 2004 inquiry into a child's death in A&E, have yet to be acted on by the HSE North Eastern region.

More recently we heard that out-of-date scanners are still being used in hospitals in the same region, despite faulty scanning being implicated in the miscarriage misdiagnosis scandal.

Ultimately, if you need treatment, you don't have much choice but to trust your health service to give you the best care.

And perhaps mutter a silent prayer for good measure.


We can no longer entrust our health safety to simple blind faith.

It's about time Mary Harney started to convince us that the service she has presided over for six years is going to get safer sometime soon. The buck stops with her.