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NMC defends private misconduct hearing for Stephen Hawking's nurse

The chief executive of the Nursing and Midwifery Council has defended the regulator’s decision to hold a misconduct hearing behind closed doors for the former nurse of late scientist Professor Stephen Hawking.

In a blog published today following criticism in the national press over the weekend, NMC chief executive Andrea Sutcliffe said she “stands by” the regulator’s choice to try Patricia Dowdy in private.

“The public interest will have been served by us carrying out our work carefully and diligently”

Andrea Sutcliffe

However, Ms Sutcliffe said the NMC would review the way it had handled the case following the concerns raised.

It has come to light that Ms Dowdy was given an 18-month interim suspension order by the NMC in 2016 amid allegations of misconduct in relation to her care of famed physicist Professor Hawking.

The alleged wrongdoing took place in Cambridge, where Professor Hawking worked and where he died in March 2018 from a form of motor neurone disease.

The adult nurse is now going through a six-week trial with the NMC to see if her fitness to practise is impaired, which could result in her being struck off the register. It is due to end on 21 March.

However, the Mail on Sunday revealed yesterday that the public and the media had been banned from attending the hearing and details about the case had been kept secret.

Campaigners raised concerns to the title about lack of transparency, with one warning that “justice in the dark is never proper justice”.

It comes as the NMC is in the midst of overhauling its fitness to practise procedures, with the aim of hearing more cases in private in a bid to eradicate “blame culture”, speed up processes and save money.

Ms Sutcliffe, who took the reins of the regulator earlier this year from her position as chief inspector of adult social care at the Care Quality Commission, said she recognised that there was a public interest in holding hearings in public.

However, she noted that there were exceptional circumstances in Ms Dowdy’s case. She said the decision to hold the hearing in private was made under paragraph 57 of the NMC’s guidance.

It states: “This will be considered when dealing with matters relating to the nurse or midwife’s health, where issues are raised relating to the vulnerability of witnesses, the health of witnesses or other people who are identified but are not parties to the case, or to protect the anonymity of patients.”

Ms Sutcliffe added: “That is the basis upon which this particular hearing was conducted in private and I stand by that decision.

“No public interest is served by exposing the details of the health or care of an individual whose anonymity may not be guaranteed in an open hearing,” she said.

“The impact of proceedings on all can be far reaching”

Cathryn Watters

Andrea Sutcliffe

Andrea Sutcliffe

Andrea Sutcliffe

The outcome and any sanction imposed on Ms Dowdy, reported to be aged 61, would be made public when the trial was concluded, Ms Sutcliffe said.

“The public interest will have been served by us carrying out our work carefully and diligently and with due respect to all the individuals involved,” she said. “That is what we should expect human regulation acting to protect the public to look like.”

But Ms Sutcliffe said the NMC would review how it had handled Ms Dowdy’s case, “as we would do in any case where serious issues have been raised with us”.

The Mail reported that the investigation had been sparked by a complaint from Professor Hawking’s family. 

When approached by a reporter from the newspaper, Ms Dowdy, who is believed to have worked for Professor Hawking for 15 years and lives in Ipswich, Suffolk, declined to comment and said she was not was supposed to talk about the case.

James Titcombe, who became a patient safety campaigner after losing his baby son Joshua in the Morecambe Bay maternity scandal, said he had been assured by Ms Sutcliffe’s intervention that there were “exceptional circumstances” in this case that warranted it being held in private.

“I strongly believe that unless there are exceptional circumstances - all hearing for serious cases of misconduct should be heard in public,” he told Nursing Times. 

Cathryn Watters, founder of the campaign group NMCWatch:registrant care, which aims to support nurses and midwives through fitness to practise and ensure processes are fair, also backed the NMC’s approach in this case.

“Given the high profile of this case I would assume that there are certain aspects that are not appropriate from a confidentiality point of view to be heard in the public domain,” she told Nursing Times.

“Also, there may be certain aspects relating to the registrant…which again are not appropriate to be shared,” Ms Watters added.

“This doesn’t mean the hearing is being held in secret it just means that it is safeguarding all parties which we are very keen to happen at NMCWatch as the impact of proceedings on all can be far reaching,” she said.

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