Sarah Jane Downing is a writer, and a victim of Ian Paterson. She started a support group for those affected and is still campaigning on the issue (petition can be found here).

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The story of Ian Paterson the rogue breast cancer surgeon who was allowed free reign to ruin thousands of lives over 17 years is now quite well known.  You can read the facts of what he did to us in the Bishop’s Inquiry into Ian Paterson:, but the actual horror of discovering that an operation that you only submitted to because Paterson told you it would save your life is something that does not come across with full impact no matter how many times it is told.

At the NHS Heart of England Trust Paterson operated on more than 1300 breast cancer patients, treating them – without their consent – to his own special Cleavage Sparing Mastectomy procedure, sadly as it had no grounding in medical science and defied the recommended mastectomy method of clearing all breast tissue in the affected area, it has to date caused the unnecessary death of 709 of the recipients.

I received a letter from Spire Healthcare out of the blue in July 2014 telling me that they had found ‘grave anomalies’ in my notes and I needed to discuss my treatment. I was told that the operation Paterson had performed to remove the ‘dangerous, rapidly growing’ lump in my breast had been in fact entirely unnecessary and given a form to report the operation to the police as a criminal assault. There was no apology, no offer of a refund, and no support to deal with the horrific devastating news. Painfully aware that there must be others who had been treated with the same casual brutality, I put a call out in my local press to invite everyone in the same predicament to join me for a coffee party to raise funds for Macmillan Cancer Support.

That was the beginning of my support group for Paterson’s patients, predominantly in the private healthcare sector, and the opening of a catalogue of disturbing discovery. There is a general belief – largely fuelled by carefully curated advertising campaigns – that private healthcare is a safer, better option, unfortunately we have found the bitter truth to be entirely the opposite. When things go wrong private healthcare patients are left completely without redress.

There is an abject lack of accountability in the private healthcare sector which acts as a convenient ‘rogues charter’ for surgeon’s like Paterson and the healthcare companies who profit from all the unnecessary and wrongful surgeries they inflict upon their patients. In fact contrary to the carefully cultivated claims about patient care, the private healthcare model in the UK actually allows that the contract is between surgeon and hospital, and patient outcome is consequently immaterial.

Where the NHS was forthcoming in acknowledging their part in enabling Paterson and relatively quick to compensate their patients, Spire Healthcare were determined to keep every penny that they and Paterson had extorted from us. A solicitor from Spire’s legal team even stated in a legal document that they were ‘not obliged to supply competent surgeons’, only surgeons, and therefore they were not accountable. We have had to fight long and hard to get any compensation at all for our life altering injuries – even those who have been permanently disabled, those suffering secondary cancers, and the families of those who died unnecessary deaths – because the MDU withdrew Paterson’s insurance due to his criminal activities. Spire did eventually come up with a sum, but continue to deny any accountability for the surgeries performed by Paterson, at their hospitals, assisted by their staff, in accordance with contracts from which they profited.

We then had to fight for there to be a Government Inquiry into our case, and spent over two years working with the Inquiry team to define a set of Recommendations that we hope will be the first step in righting the issues that we have fallen victim to, and to developing suitably robust legislation that will bring accountability to the private healthcare sector.

Sadly the advent of the Pandemic has caused us to fear that our gains for patient safety will be undermined before the Recommendations are ever implemented.

With such additional stress on the NHS it is inevitable that the relationship with the private sector will become further entwined. NHS patients treated within the private sector will have some protection afforded legally by ‘Vicarious Liability’ allowing them greater redress if their treatment goes wrong, but it is essential that patient safety concerns are at the heart of any and all possible future arrangements, so they are informed of the additional risks, and to offer protection to all before they accept treatment.

However, as soon as the closer arrangement between the NHS and the private healthcare sector was announced American investment corporation Invesco bought significant numbers of vote-carrying shares in Spire Healthcare. Perhaps it is the fact that the company is so adept at making a vast profit in our private healthcare sector which is subject to fewer regulations than in the USA, but more worryingly, as Invesco are closely linked with the Trump Administration, could it be the first move towards making sure access to the NHS remains firmly on the post-Brexit trade agreement negotiating table?

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Spire’s response to the report of the Paterson Independent Inquiry

Justin Ash, Chief Executive of Spire Healthcare, said:

“Following the publication of today’s report, we once again apologise for the significant distress suffered by patients who were treated by Ian Paterson in our hospitals. We accept that there were a number of missed opportunities to challenge Ian Paterson’s criminal behaviour when these incidents happened prior to his suspension in 2011.

“We welcome the report and the voice it has given to patients. We fully support its recommendations and we will work with Government and the healthcare sector to ensure their implementation.”

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Sarah-Jane’s petition for changes to the way private healthcare and the NHS interact can be found here.

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