May 18, 2024

Leading British surgeon allegedly hoarded body parts

He illegally accumulated the bones of patients over 25 years

(Sorry, we missed this significant story which broke in September and October.) A pioneering orthopaedic surgeon has been officially censured for illegally keeping the bones of 5,224 of his patients without their consent for his private research. On October 22 conditions were placed on the medical licence of 67-year-old Derek McMinn.

Patients travelled from all over the world to have McMinn operate on their hips and knees at the BMI Edgbaston Hospital in Birmingham. He developed the first technique for successful metal-on-metal hip resurfacing and is an acknowledged authority in the field. His patients included politicians, sports stars and celebrities.

McMinn said that he had been storing bone samples in his private residence for 25 years with the verbal consent of his patients. However, consent is supposed to be documented in writing and there does not appear to be any evidence of discussions with his patients. His collection apparently included patient notes and X-rays. He claims that he acted with the full knowledge of his colleagues and employer.

The Independent was told by an anonymous source at the hospital: “It’s all been kept quiet, they have covered it up. There are lots of patients who haven’t been told and who don’t know he has their body parts. He was the goose that laid the golden egg. He generated an enormous amount of income for the hospital. He had been there a long time; it was almost his hospital really. It is shocking how was this allowed to happen for so long.”

Commenting on the scandal in The lndependent, Dr Alexis Paton, an ethicist with the Royal College of Physicians, blamed “tunnel vision”.

If McMinn failed to recognise his research was crossing a line, it also speaks to a very real, very modern and very persistent problem in healthcare that almost always results in harm to patients: tunnel vision.  

Tunnel vision occurs when healthcare staff focus on only one aspect of care, losing awareness of the situation and appropriate steps they should be taking to avoid harm. …

If McMinn was clandestinely hoarding human tissue, what he hoped to gain is unclear. Speaking as someone who reads a lot of these, a sound and well-written research proposal and ethics application would very likely have been approved. That he allegedly ignored the conventions of research ethics and patient rights for so long, talking his co-workers into colluding with him leaves one important and unanswered question: was it worth the risk?  

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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