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Ethics briefings
  1. Veronica English,
  2. Jessica Gardner,
  3. Gillian Romano-Critchley,
  4. Ann Sommerville
  1. Medical Ethics Department, British Medical Association

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    Self regulation, law and patient rights

    The need to re-establish public confidence in medicine's ability to regulate itself after a series of scandals remains a continuing challenge. In January 2001, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales summed up what he perceived as a radical change in public attitudes, noting that medical negligence litigation “was a disaster area” and complaints to the General Medical Council (GMC) were expected to rise to around 4,500 in 2001. Reflecting what he claimed were changing public expectations, he announced the end of the courts' “presumption of beneficence” on the part of doctors. He criticised the judiciary's past deference to medical opinion and claimed that society was shifting its focus from concepts of duties to individuals' enforceable rights. This “move to a rights based society”, he said “has fundamentally changed the behaviour of the courts” and by reference to a number of recent major medico-ethical cases, highlighted how the courts rather than doctors appeared increasingly as the ultimate arbiters on questions of medical ethics.

    Organ retention

    Media attention crystallised around two major issues which exposed flaws in self regulation: the unauthorised retention of organs from deceased patients and the implications of the Shipman case, in which a general practitioner, Harold Shipman was found guilty of murdering 15 of his patients. In May 2000, in his interim report on paediatric practice at Bristol Royal Infirmary, Professor Ian Kennedy drew attention to the fact that organs of deceased children had been retained without their parents' knowledge or consent. It soon became evident that this had been a common practice in other hospitals, both after coroners' postmortem examinations (which do not require relatives' permission) and so-called “hospital postmortems” (which do require such authorisation). The report noted that current law was confused and a detailed code of practice was needed to clarify the circumstances in which …

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