Leading Oncologist 'Overly Focused' on Treating Dying Patients

Ian Leonard

October 20, 2021

MANCHESTER—World-renowned oncologist Professor Justin Stebbing has admitted he was "overly focused" on treating dying cancer patients instead of not treating them, a medical tribunal heard.

Prof Stebbing said he’d reflected on his past mistakes with patient management and clinical decision-making and had since been on a "humbling" and "chastening" learning experience.

Prof Justin Stebbing

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

They’ve included New Zealand multi-millionaire Sir Douglas Myers and the actor Lynda Bellingham.

But Prof Stebbing, a cancer medicine and oncology professor at Imperial College London with a private practice in Harley Street, was found guilty earlier this month of 33 out of 36 charges - 30 of which he admitted - after he was accused of failing to provide good clinical care to 12 patients between March 2014 and 2017.

The charges included inappropriately treating patients given their advanced cancer or poor prognosis, overstating life expectancy and benefits of chemotherapy, and continuing to treat patients who failed to respond, or who were close to death.

Other charges concerned his failure to gain informed consent for treatment from patients and failing to maintain proper records.

Treatment Focus

A MPTS (Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service) tribunal, which handed down the verdict, is now considering whether his fitness to practise has been impaired.

Prof Stebbing, under questioning from his QC Mary O’Rourke, conceded that he’d not been focussed on the "no treatment option" with patients.

"With this cohort of patients, I was overly focussed on providing treatment," he said.

"I am sorry for that."

Prof Stebbing admitted that it was wrong "in retrospect" to treat one patient - a 44-year-old woman known as Patient D - who had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

He failed to inform the patient or her family that an application for private funding had been refused prior to her £3000 chemotherapy treatment, which her father then had to pay, and she died 2 days later.

A second patient - Patient H, a 70-year-old man from South Africa with pancreatic cancer and severe liver problems - should also have not been given treatment, Prof Stebbing said.

Prof Stebbing had admitted inappropriately treating a 47-year-old female patient - known as Patient E - and failing to maintain an appropriate degree of professional distance with her after they exchanged "flirty" messages.

The tribunal previously heard how he referred to her as LMT, or ‘Little Miss Trouble’, and many messages were accompanied with kisses, "love to LMT" and "good LMT".

Patient E later admitted to developing feelings for him due to their "strong chemistry" and his "super tactile and affectionate" nature.

Although there was no suggestion their relationship went any further, it was claimed the patient’s "emotional attachment" may have put Prof Stebbing in a "vulnerable position" and "clouded his judgement".

Prof Stebbing told the tribunal that he’d never exhibited this kind of behaviour before or since and "it was just the wrong thing to do".

He said all cancer patients were "immensely vulnerable" and he should have followed GMC guidance in Patient E’s case, and he was "sorry" he hadn’t.

Long and Humbling Journey

His record-keeping with all 12 patients had been "deficient", he said.

"I was in too much of a hurry and not stopping."

The tribunal heard that Prof Stebbing had since undertaken various courses to help him reflect on his mistakes.

"It’s just been part of an ongoing journey of reflection and thinking about the mistakes I have made with patient management and clinical decision-making," he said.

"And more importantly the dishonesty.

"It’s a piece of the jigsaw in a long and humbling journey."

He added: "This whole process has been chastening and a massive learning experience for me."

Prof Stebbing, who said he’d taken part in vaccine work during the COVID-19 pandemic, is due to give 2 more days of evidence.

If the MPTS panel decides his fitness to practise has been impaired it will then rule on what sanction he will face, which includes being struck off.

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

Lead Image: MPTS
Image 1: Kerry Elsworth


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