Oncologist Denies 'Cover-up' Over Unapproved Chemo

Ian Leonard

July 07, 2021

MANCHESTER—World-renowned oncologist Professor Justin Stebbing has denied orchestrating a "cover-up" after he gave chemotherapy to a patient that hadn't been approved by his supervisors, a medical tribunal heard.

Prof Stebbing, a cancer medicine and oncology professor at Imperial College London with a private practice in Harley Street, claimed he'd never intended to "deliberately deceive" people and had only wanted "to save his job".

His international reputation for innovative treatments has led to wealthy, terminally ill cancer patients from around the globe turning to him in the hope of extending their lives.

They include New Zealand multi-millionaire Sir Douglas Myers and the actor Lynda Bellingham.

Prof Stebbing is appearing before a Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS) fitness to practise hearing and is accused of failing to provide good clinical care to 12 patients between March 2014 and March 2017.

In some cases, he's accused of inappropriately treating patients given their advanced cancer or poor prognosis, overstating life expectancy and the benefits of chemotherapy and continuing to treat patients when it was futile and they had just weeks to live.

The 36 charges - 21 of which he's admitted - also include failing to keep proper records and failing to gain informed consent for treatment from patients.

Patient L

The tribunal heard about one patient from New Zealand - known only as Patient L - who was admitted to the Princess Grace Hospital in March 2017, where he was diagnosed with a small bowel obstruction and then given irinotecan-based chemotherapy.

Prof Stebbing, who'd treated the patient since 2013, has admitted inappropriately prescribing the treatment, given the bowel obstruction was evident on a CT scan and conditions had been placed on his practice by HCA Healthcare.

Those conditions required him to get authorisation from two supervisors before changing a patient's treatment.

Prof Stebbing told the tribunal that he made a "presumption" the treatment would be approved but he admitted not reading an email saying it had been refused.

Sharon Beattie, for the GMC (General Medical Council), put it to Prof Stebbing that he wasn't "bothered" whether he got approval or not.

"I never would have wanted to go against my supervisors," he replied.

"But I didn't think this very routine treatment wouldn't be approved based on the funkier drugs I had like immunotherapy, were often not approved and the chemotherapies I had were usually approved.

"It was based on history, based on discussions and I remember a conversation I had when the pembo (pembrolizumab) hadn't been approved and they said just give him routine chemo don't go for these clever, fancy drugs."

Patient L received the chemotherapy the day after Prof Stebbing received the email saying it had been refused.

One of Prof Stebbing's supervisors, Dr Maurice Slevin, formerly an oncologist with Leaders in Oncology Care (LOC), had also warned him in a telephone call the previous evening that the treatment hadn't been approved.

But Prof Stebbing denies a charge of failing to withdraw the prescription because he was under the impression the chemotherapy had already been administered by the time he spoke to Dr Slevin.

He said he'd also expected the treatment not to be given due to checks in the hospital system.

Ms Beattie pointed out that he'd not made any further checks or communication to confirm if the treatment had been approved before deciding to prescribe the chemotherapy "regardless".

Prof Stebbing admitted he'd been "careless" and "sloppy" and should have checked and he'd believed the chemotherapy had been administered on the same day he'd approved his prescription.

Dishonesty Charge

Prof Stebbing has admitted several other charges in relation to Patient L after he sought to have treatment retrospectively authorised at an MDT meeting and changed details on paperwork, including removing a reference to the CT scan, with his actions deemed dishonest.

But he denies a charge of dishonesty in relation to failing to get authorisation for the patient's chemotherapy as well as failure to withdrawing his prescription, obtain informed consent and maintain adequate records.

Prof Stebbing admits to "panicking" after he realised the treatment had not been approved but Ms Beattie claimed he'd deliberately orchestrated a "cover-up" by changing records.

He denied that was the case, saying he'd been in a "blind panic" and he'd wanted to document decisions "to save his job".

"But I went about it in such a stupid and ridiculous way it was no cover up," he added

"I was not trying to deliberately deceive people. I can see my professional and personal life collapsing in ashes around me, which is what happened."

The tribunal continues.

Ian Leonard is a freelance journalist experienced in covering MPTS hearings.

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