Stephen Hawking case raises concerns about UK nursing

Concerns about patient safety in Britain have been raised after it was revealed that Professor Stephen Hawking’s nurse has been struck off for failures over his care and financial misconduct.

The United Kingdom’s Nursing and Midwifery Council, known as NMC, has come under scrutiny for a trend toward holding disciplinary hearings in secret, with campaigners dismayed that details of the Hawking case have been suppressed by the body which regulates nursing.

Patricia Dowdy, 61, who worked for the renowned scientist for 15 years, was suspended in 2016, it emerged last weekend.

The NMC made its decision to remove Dowdy from the nursing register at a private hearing in London. It said the charges included financial misconduct, dishonesty, not providing appropriate care, failing to cooperate with the nursing watchdog and not having the correct qualifications.

The story of the nurse’s misconduct was first reported by the Mail on Sunday newspaper, which said that the family of Hawking had lodged the complaint which prompted the investigation into Dowdy.

The hearing into her professional conduct, which began in February, was held behind closed doors.

It is understood that the nurse, from Ipswich, Suffolk, stopped working for Hawking at least two years before he succumbed to motor neurone disease in March last year, aged 76.

The NMC said a secrecy order was granted because of Dowdy’s “health”, but declined to elaborate further.

Hawking had been confined to a wheelchair since the age of 30 and was attended to by a rota of private nurses and carers paid for by Cambridge University, where he was a mathematics professor.

Members of Parliament and patient safety campaigners are increasingly concerned about secrecy at the NMC, which regulates the UK’s 690,000 nurses and midwives and holds disciplinary hearings.

In September 2016, it stopped publishing detailed charges faced by nurses and midwives ahead of NMC hearings. National newspaper coverage of hearings subsequently plummeted from 51 cases in 2016 to 16 in 2018.

Last March, the then NMC Chief Executive Jackie Smith announced plans to hold public hearings “only in exceptional circumstances”, arguing that a softer approach would encourage people to admit more mistakes. In July, the NMC published its new fitness to practise strategy which stated: “In many cases, a full public hearing may not be necessary.”

Independent MP John Woodcock, who helped his constituents fight for NMC hearings into midwives implicated in the needless deaths of babies at Furness General Hospital in Cumbria, warned the secrecy could increase the risk of a further tragedy.

He told the Mail on Sunday: “It is deeply concerning that the NMC is seeking to reduce transparency.”

Open justice campaigner John Hemming said: “Justice in the dark is never proper justice. If you want people to have confidence in the regulator, then justice needs to be done – and seen to be done.”

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