Doctor who tried to cover up nine-year-old’s death after overdosing her is struck off
A doctor who sought to cover up the cause of death of a nine-year-old patient has been struck off after a public inquiry found the little girl had died as a result of ‘negligent care’.
The hyponatremia public inquiry concluded in 2018 that the death of Claire Roberts, who died in October 1996, was the result from an overdose of fluids and medication.
A fresh inquest in 2019 ruled her death was ’caused by the treatment she received in hospital’, where Claire was under the care of Dr Heather Steen.
The parents of Claire Roberts were told at the time a viral infection had spread from her stomach to her brain and that medics had done everything possible to save her.
Speaking to BBC Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra, Claire Roberts’ mother Jennifer said she will ‘never forgive’ Dr Steen, who put their family through 26 years of ‘mental torment’.
A fresh inquest in 2019 ruled her death was ’caused by the treatment she received in hospital’, where Claire was under the care of Dr Heather Steen
‘I’m angry at Dr Steen for putting us through 26 years of mental torment,’ Mrs Roberts said.
‘Twenty-six years as a mother to fight for truth and accountability.
‘The true circumstances of Claire’s death has been hidden and concealed from us as a family. Claire’s brothers Gareth and Stuart were robbed of a sister, a sister who brought so much joy, love and happiness to our family home.’
Claire’s father Alan said Dr Steen’s silence ‘speaks volumes about her guilt’.
In October 2004, a documentary, UTV’s When Hospitals Kill, raised concerns about the treatment of a number of children who had died from hyponatraemia, which occurs when there is a shortage of sodium in the bloodstream.
Following the screening, a public inquiry was announced as Alan and Jennifer Roberts sought answers from the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children about the care of their daughter.
On Friday, a Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service panel decided that the appropriate sanction for Dr Heather Steen was erasure after it earlier found her fitness to practice was impaired.
The tribunal accepted that Dr Steen, now retired, was ‘not attempting to conceal details of, or failings in, Patient A’s care in 1996/97, when she believed there was a viral cause of death’.
However, she persisted with her focus on a viral cause once fluid and electrolyte mismanagement became a ‘live issue’ from 2004 and ‘continued to emphasise this aspect whilst seeking to downplay, qualify and minimise or ignore findings to the contrary’.
The hyponatremia public inquiry concluded in 2018 that the death of Claire Roberts, who died in October 1996, was the result from an overdose of fluids and medication
Tribunal chair Sean Ell said this ‘misrepresentation’ continued through the consultant paediatrician’s involvement with Claire’s parents, at a coroner’s inquest – ordered after the documentary screening – and the public inquiry itself.
Mr Ell said: ‘Dr Steen had many opportunities to reconsider and be open and transparent, but chose to maintain her dishonesty over the course of events after 2004.
‘Whilst the failings may not have changed the tragic outcome of Patient A’s death, her parents were seeking answers to what happened and were entitled to full transparency.’
He later added: ‘The tribunal determined that public confidence would be undermined if, knowing all of the circumstances of this case, a finding of impairment was not made.
‘Fellow practitioners would consider Dr Steen’s behaviour in seeking to cover up the cause of Patient A’s death to be deplorable.
‘Honesty and integrity are key to public confidence in the medical profession and the tribunal determined that a finding of current impairment was necessary in order to maintain public confidence in the profession and to uphold proper standards of conduct and behaviour in the profession.’
The tribunal also found Dr Steen’s failure to report the sudden and unexpected death of a child in hospital to the coroner ‘fell seriously below the standard expected’.
It judged that her inappropriate completion of Claire’s death certificate also amounted to serious misconduct.
Dr Steen denied the allegations but did not give evidence.
The tribunal noted that Dr Steen accepted at the public inquiry that there had been mistakes in Claire’s care and had apologised to her family.
It also noted ‘numerous positive testimonials provided on behalf of Dr Steen that spoke both to her skills as a clinician and the manner in which she dealt with patients and parents, in often difficult circumstances.’