A photograph of a doctor operating in theatre. This is similar to the work that the Doctors at the centre of the St. George's Hospital investigation would have done.

Dying doctor warns of asbestos ‘hidden epidemic’

A doctor has warned of a ‘hidden epidemic’ of asbestos-related cancers among NHS staff and patients after there has been a failure to manage the toxic material.

Dr Kate Richmond, who now lives in Australia, with her husband and two small children aged eight and 11, had spoken out after being diagnosed with mesothelioma, leaving her with just two to three years to live.

Having worked as a medical student and junior doctor at Walsgrave Hospital in Coventry, she had suspected that her condition may have related to her time in the building. Based on this theory she managed to claim against the NHS for negligently exposing her to asbestos.

A recent investigation by The Independent proved a further 13 prosecutions linked to breaches of regulations for the handling of asbestos at six NHS trusts, since 2010, as well as a total of 128 people in health and social care roles that have died from the mesothelioma, between 2011 and 2017.

Mesothelioma is a form of cancer, that is developed from the thin line of tissue that covers most of the internal organs. It is considered highly fatal and claims around 5,000 deaths a year. The GP, who was diagnosed in May 2018, was told she could die as early as July this year, with her and her husband preparing for life after her death.

“My children were nine and six at the time and I’ve had to come to terms with the fact I am not going to be around to bring them up. It has taken all my dignity, my ability to care for my children and I can’t work so it’s taken me away from my patients too.” She added.

Describing on how the issue could have occurred, Dr Richmond mentioned that maintenance staff had no safety measures when they removed the asbestos ceiling tiles, allowing dust and debris to fall on towards where patients were being treated by staff. Furthermore, as well as the exposure during the maintenance, she said she would frequently use the underground service tunnels where asbestos-lined pipes were common, to move between areas.

A spokesperson, for the University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire Trust (the trust that ran the hospital between 1998 and 2004), had said: “We would like to extend our heartfelt sympathies to Dr Richmond and her family at this difficult time. We believe there were stringent controls in place to manage asbestos at the old Walsgrave Hospital, which closed in 2006.

“After a thorough review with those directly involved at that time, the trust felt that the opportunity for any incidental exposure would have been very low. We are pleased that the settlement will enable Dr Richmond to meet her ongoing care needs and will provide security for her and her family into the future.”

Many of the NHS buildings containing asbestos, were built between the 1950s and 1980s. Strict regulations are now in place for how to handle its removal, due to the high severity of it if disturbed.

Speaking about the issue, she said: “We had no idea and just walked around the ladders with the dust and debris falling down into the ward where there were still patients in their beds”.

“It is indefensible not to do the right thing. The managers who make these decisions, I don’t know how they sleep at night. They made an economic decision and it condemned me to death.”

NHS Providers have since warned that the overwhelming amount of maintenance work in the NHS, including dealing with older buildings that contain asbestos, is a safety risk for the patients and staff. They have since also called on a major investment programme to be launched by the government, in order to renew and refurbish buildings and equipment.

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “Ensuring staff and patient safety is a fundamental priority for trusts. That means being able to provide the right environment. But years of cuts to capital funding have made this increasingly difficult and this is showing.

This begs the question, is the NHS completely to blame for the matter? There is an argument that suggests they are, however, the lack of funding from the government in the past can’t be ignored, and though there is now evidence of them willing to invest an extra £33.9 billion per year by 2023/24 into the health care service, it is uncertain whether this is enough and what this will be spent on? One thing we do know is that it will certainly add another twist in the tale of the pressures on the NHS.

If you’ve been subject to harmful substances, speak to one of our expert solicitors for advice on how you can make a compensation claim.

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