A world-renowned surgeon collected and stored body parts from thousands of patients over 25 years in breach of legal and ethical guidelines, according to a leaked report seen by The Independent.
Derek McMinn, who pioneered the hip resurfacing technique that doctors used to resurrect Andy Murray’s tennis career, kept the bones of at least 5,224 patients he operated on, some of whom could have been children – despite having no licence to store body parts or proper consent from patients, according to the findings of an investigation. The case has been referred to police by the Human Tissue Authority, which was not informed until last year. An insider at the private healthcare group where McMinn worked insisted: “It’s all been kept quiet, they’ve covered it up.”
Nurses, theatre staff and doctors at the Edgbaston Hospital, in Birmingham, where the surgeon carried out the majority of his operations, were apparently aware of what he was doing. Some hospital staff even helped put bones from patients in special pots to be preserved and collected by McMinn’s staff, according to the internal report for BMI Healthcare, which runs the hospital.
However, it is understood that the full scale of McMinn’s actions – dating back to the 1990s – was kept from some regulators until the The Independent began making inquiries in the past week, despite completion of the internal review in October last year. BMI Healthcare has also not informed any of McMinn’s patients, who were mainly private and paid £13,000 for the operation, but also included some referred by the NHS.
McMinn – who has treated politicians, sports stars and celebrities – apparently admitted to hospital bosses last year that he had been keeping patient bones at his seven-bedroom farmhouse in Worcestershire, as well as at his business premises in Birmingham, with full knowledge of his BMI Healthcare colleagues. He said he had kept the bones for his retirement, with hospital staff telling the investigation the body parts had been intended to “keep his mind active”.
West Mercia Police has confirmed that officers were investigating an alleged breach of the Human Tissue Act relating to “a private premises in Worcestershire” following a referral by the Human Tissue Authority.
The Birmingham hip resurfacing procedure McMinn pioneered involves removing the surface of the ball joint on the hip and replacing it with a metal sphere, rather than replacing the whole joint and part of the femur, meaning patients are more mobile and less likely to need further surgery. It is the bone from these joints that McMinn systematically collected and stored over decades, all apparently without his patients’ knowledge. The investigation found he also amassed thousands of linked patient records and X-rays in a collection described as similar to “a police database” in its size and scale of personal information and DNA records. Investigators said they were unable to ascertain how the bone samples were being stored.
An insider at the hospital said: “It’s all been kept quiet, they have covered it up. There are lots of patients who haven’t been told and who don’t know he has their body parts.
“He was the goose that laid the golden egg. He generated an enormous amount of income for the hospital. He had been there a long time; it was almost his hospital really. It is shocking how was this allowed to happen for so long.”
William Dewis, from Burntwood in Staffordshire, was one of McMinn’s NHS patients in 1999. He died in August 2018 but his daughter Ollie told The Independent she was “shocked” to learn of the allegations, adding: “I just hope we can get to the bottom of this.” She also said the failure of the BMI to inform all of McMinn’s patients about the investigation was a “disgrace”. “They should have contacted all the patients as soon as they knew,” she said. “It is appalling they haven’t done that yet, there is no excuse.”
The revelations again throw the spotlight on safety within private hospitals just months after an inquiry into the jailed breast surgeon Ian Paterson, who carried out unnecessary surgery on more than 1,000 patients, warned the government that action was urgently needed.
Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, now chair of the Commons Health Select Committee, called for an immediate investigation to determine the full extent of McMinn’s actions. He told The Independent: “This case looks concerning, and we need answers quickly. It shows once again why the government must get on with implementing the Paterson inquiry recommendations as a matter of urgency. We have heard this theme of staff not speaking up again and again, so we can not allow these recommendations to be kicked into the long grass.”
In March 2019, a routine pathology audit at Edgbaston Hospital identified 20 pots of bones dating back to December 2018 in a storage area. The next day, senior managers arranged for the samples to be collected by staff working for McMinn and taken to The McMinn Centre clinic nearby, according to the investigation. Human tissue should be treated as clinical waste by hospital staff, placed for collection in bags and bins then taken for incineration.
The internal report, written by one of BMI’s executive directors and the quality and risk manager of a sister hospital, found no evidence McMinn had any approval for research – a requirement under the Human Tissue Act for storing patient samples – or that any research had been carried out. It stated that the hospital’s executive director contacted McMinn at the start of July that year, warning him that the hospital did not have a licence to store human tissue and that “in future” the samples needed to be removed from the hospital’s premises on the day of surgery.
Weeks later, the Care Quality Commission inspected the hospital and learned of the pots found in March. In August last year, the watchdog asked the hospital to confirm it had a licence from the Human Tissue Authority and that McMinn had consent from patients.
Only then was the surgeon asked to justify his actions. According to the internal report, McMinn emailed the hospital in August 2019 admitting “the samples were to be used for research, that he had been collecting tissue for 25 years, that he obtained verbal consent and that he had several thousand labelled samples in formalin pots with the corresponding notes, X-rays and investigations”. He was suspended that month by BMI, which also informed the General Medical Council (GMC) and Human Tissue Authority. However, there are currently no GMC restrictions on his licence to practice.
The report concluded: “Mr McMinn has and continues to store material, namely tissue, that came from human bodies.” It added neither he nor his clinic had a licence from the Human Tissue Authority to do so.
The report was unable to verify how many samples McMinn had collected but was told by one of the surgeon’s staff that he had 5,224. It found that these were likely to have come from multiple private hospitals as well as NHS patients. At one stage, McMinn had operated at Little Aston Hospital, owned by Spire Healthcare, and staff told investigators the practice of collecting bones had continued there. It is understood that Spire has not had any contact from BMI warning its patients may have been affected.
The report concluded he had failed to comply with multiple requirements of the General Medical Council and Human Tissue Authority. The HTA told The Independent that it could not comment because of the ongoing police investigation.
It is understood that the CQC was not made aware of the full extent of the issues until last Friday, after The Independent had begun making inquiries. Professor Ted Baker, the chief inspector of hospitals, said: “While we understand that BMI’s internal investigation incurred delays, it is disappointing that it has taken so long for the findings to be shared with us.” He said the watchdog would be reviewing the reports to determine whether further action was needed, while the General Medical Council has also asked for the investigation reports.
When approached by The Independent, McMinn declined to comment. Circle Health Group, which took over BMI Healthcare in June this year, said the hospital leadership had changed since the investigation and delays in passing on the internal report were so that a complex and extensive series of further investigations could take place. A spokesperson said the group “would like to apologise for this surgeon’s completely unacceptable and distressing actions in previous years”, adding: “We will leave no stone unturned in investigating these historic issues; they have all been reported to the appropriate authorities and we will cooperate closely with regulators to resolve them.”
Spire Healthcare, whose patients were also affected, said it had not been contacted, though Circle Health Group claims to have raised the issue in August last year. Circle also said it could find no evidence of NHS patients being affected and the decision had been taken not to inform patients because there had been no significant harm, though this was now under review.
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