Nikki Sams was just twenty-six when she tragically died of cervical cancer in 2007, after her GP failed to spot her symptoms on eight occasions. Last week, after a three year Parliamentary campaign and an eight year campaign by Nikki’s family, I was able to celebrate the news with my constituent Mike Sams, Nicki’s father, that we had successfully changed the law to better protect the victims of negligent doctors.
The General Medical Council (GMC) has been given the power to challenge decisions of tribunals that hear cases against doctors who are alleged to have breached GMC standards. The change to the Medical Act means the GMC can appeal against tribunal decisions to the High Court of Justice in England and Wales, the Court of Session in Scotland and the High Court of Justice of Northern Ireland when it considers the tribunal has not adequately protected patients.
Nikki, who lived in Luton went to see her GP, Dr Navin Shankar on eight occasions. He ignored her pleas for hospital checks, and it was only after she moved from his practice that she was diagnosed with having cervical cancer.
Despite the GMC finding Shankar guilty of serious misconduct and declaring him unfit to practice, he was able to continue working as a GP under supervision and escaped being struck off the register. Ultimately, he took voluntary erasure whereby he took his own name off the GP register.
Mr Sams had been writing to the GMC for many years, without success when I took up the campaign in 2012. I arranged a meeting for Mr Sams and Nikki’s sister, Joanne with the then Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley. This came following an earlier meeting I was able to organise at the House of Commons between the family and the Chief Executive of the GMC, Niall Dickson.
I have pursued this case over the last three and a bit years because I felt so strongly about the appalling travesty of both Nikki’s death at such a young age and the fact that the doctor played the system and retired as a way to avoid being struck off.
No change in the law can bring Nikki back but the least Mr Sams had the right to expect was that any other family who suffers such a loss as a result of a negligible doctor is able to appeal a decision where the disciplinary process has not worked.
It was clear that there was an imbalance in the way a doctor could appeal against a tribunal decision that they regarded as being harsh, but the family of a deceased patient did not have an equal right of appeal nor did the GMC on their behalf. I am therefore delighted that the GMC will now be able to appeal in cases like Dr Shankar to avoid a repeat of the circumstances faced by Mr Sams.
Niall Dickson, the GMC’s Chief Executive said the changes “will help us to make sure doctors receive the support they require and patients receive high quality care.” He added that they “will also make investigations and hearings more proportionate, faster and more efficient.”
I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Mike and Joanne for the strength they have shown over the last 8 and a half years in securing this much needed change.