Northern Health Trust: Family 'misled' over father's death

'It is not a witch-hunt but we just wanted the truth'

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The family of a man whose death is one of 11 under investigation at a Northern Ireland health trust has said they were deliberately misled about how he died.

Health Minister Edwin Poots told the assembly on Friday that 11 deaths were among 20 cases where the Northern Trust's response was "below standard".

One of the cases being reviewed is that of Neil Cormican, 81, who died after a mix-up meant he was mistakenly given potassium intended for another patient.

His daughter said it was a basic error.

Mr Cormican was given the wrong medication after a junior doctor at Antrim Area Hospital read another patient's medical notes by mistake.

The Northern Trust failed to immediately refer the case to the coroner's office despite having an obligation to do so.

'Traumatic'

Its medical director Dr Peter Flanagan had advised staff to tell the family that a post-mortem examination was not necessary.

Speaking to the BBC, Mr Cormican's daughter, Catherine Allen, said the four years since his death in April 2010 had been "traumatic and draining".

"It has been very difficult from the outset to find out all the details of what happened to dad," she said.

"There's no other organisation that I know of which if they had caused someone's death would they be allowed to carry out that investigation themselves.

"There has been no openness or transparency - any information that we have got from them, we have had to pursue them for it. Nothing has been forthcoming."

The family only received a written apology from the Northern Trust three days before the story broke.

Trust's letter of apology The Northern Trust's letter of apology to the family was dated 26 March

In the letter, the trust "apologised unreservedly" for its failure to provide acceptable care for Mr Cormican.

The trust also told them: "We have dealt with you as a family and your complaint in an unacceptable way - again, for this I offer an unreserved apology."

On Friday, Mr Poots told the assembly that it was not clear if the 11 deaths between 2008 and 2013 - five of whom were babies - were avoidable.

However, Mrs Allen said the coroner's inquest in April 2013 into his death confirmed that if medical notes had been recorded properly, Mr Cormican probably would have survived his potassium overdose if it had been properly treated.

She said the family had contacted the BBC on Friday night following the minister's statement to the assembly, as they were frustrated at the lack of transparency and accountability regarding their father's death.

Blood test results not shared

The inquest also revealed that on the night Mr Cormican died, vital blood test results had not been shared with medical staff.

At 7pm the lab had phoned through urgent blood test results indicating that Mr Cormican's potassium level was dangerously high.

This should have been acted upon immediately but the nurse who took the call failed to pass the information on to a doctor for urgent action.

An hour later Mr Cormican had a cardiac arrest and died. The inquest confirmed that if the blood results had been acted upon, his life could have been saved.

"We know from the inquest that my father's death could have been avoided, and that only adds to our sense of frustration," she said.

"My dad's death resulted from a basic clerical error by a junior doctor that was not picked up on.

"Transparency is absolutely vital. When something like this happens, the trust must be open and honest, investigate what has happened, realise what mistakes have been made and put in place systems to ensure it never happens again."

Mrs Allen said there was a catalogue of errors made in her father's care.

"First of all, a junior doctor read the wrong medical notes, medical notes which belonged to another patient - the inquest revealed poor record-keeping," she said.

"There was a lack of communication between staff who were on duty and there was a delay in informing the coroner.

Start Quote

We feel that for the sake of our dad that we have had to pursue this”

End Quote Catherine Allen

"There was also a delay by the health trust in reporting the case as a Serious Adverse Incident."

The family also learned that the junior doctor was on duty on a busy night without senior cover, as a sick colleague who went home had not been replaced.

Mrs Allen said the family only became aware of the potassium issue after her father's body was not released to a funeral director as expected, and were told on returning to the hospital that there had been a problem.

At that stage, doctors told them they could either take their father's remains home, or face further delay by referring his death to the coroner for a post-mortem examination.

Mrs Allen said they were grieving and just wanted to get him home, but they "should never have been asked that question, as it was a decision for the medical staff".

'Error of judgement'

At the inquest it emerged that the Northern Trust's medical director, Dr Peter Flanagan, had advised staff to give the family the option of taking their father home. Dr Flanagan has since retired.

Mrs Allen told the BBC that Dr Flanagan had told the inquest the advice that there was no need to contact the coroner was a "serious error of judgement on my part".

Dr Flanagan explained that he wanted to spare Mr Cormican's family additional stress at what was a very difficult time.

Coroner John Leckey Coroner John Leckey told the inquest his office should have been informed much sooner

Northern Ireland's senior coroner, John Leckey, had told the inquest the case should have been referred to his office a lot sooner.

He said the agreement among staff not to report the case as it would result in further trouble "could not be tolerated".

Mrs Allen said her family was concerned that no-one had ever faced disciplinary action.

"The doctors that were involved could go on to work in another hospital, the same thing could happen again and there is no record to say they were ever involved in something like this before," she said.

"Things like this need to be addressed. It has been very traumatic and emotionally draining.

"We feel that for the sake of our dad that we have had to pursue this and for the sake of other people who will come along after us, that things need to be made better so that his death didn't just mean nothing."

In a statement on Sunday, the Northern Trust said it was sorry that its "handling of this case fell below the standard the family should have expected in the care of their father".

"The trust has met the family on two occasions in recent months to discuss the case and has offered them a full apology," a spokesperson added.

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