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Parents of child who died due to hospital failings told ‘everything possible’ was done to save daughter

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Dr Heather Steen, who is facing a professional misconduct tribunal

Dr Heather Steen, who is facing a professional misconduct tribunal

Claire Roberts, who died at the age of 9 years on the 23rd of October 1996 at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.

Claire Roberts, who died at the age of 9 years on the 23rd of October 1996 at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.

Alan and Jennifer Roberts sit with photographs of their daughter Claire

Alan and Jennifer Roberts sit with photographs of their daughter Claire

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Dr Heather Steen, who is facing a professional misconduct tribunal

The parents of a child who died due to hospital failings were told by her doctor that “everything possible” was done to save her life, a fitness to practise tribunal has heard.

Paediatrician Dr Heather Steen met with Alan and Jennifer Roberts after the death of their only daughter, Claire, and “stated everything possible” had been done for her, the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS) has been told.

However, the General Medical Council (GMC) has said: “If Dr Steen had looked at what happened to Claire, she could not possibly have concluded that everything had been done.”

Dr Steen has denied a raft of serious allegations relating to her conduct following the death of the nine-year-old schoolgirl at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children in 1996.

Claire was one of five children whose deaths were examined by the Hyponatraemia Inquiry, which looked at the issue of fluid mismanagement in Northern Ireland hospitals.

Hyponatraemia can occur when fluids are not administered properly and can lead to catastrophic swelling of the brain.

A second inquest into Claire’s death, ordered after the publication of the Hyponatraemia Inquiry report in 2018, found she died from cerebral oedema due to hyponatraemia, as a result of fluid mismanagement.

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Representing the GMC on Wednesday, Tom Forster said Dr Steen’s conduct after Claire’s death was “dishonest”.

In relation to her appearance at the first inquest into Claire’s death, in 2006, Mr Forster said: “It is the GMC’s case that she persisted in her failure to be open and transparent in her evidence to the coroner.

“Perhaps it’s not a controversial statement to say that the public interest in coronial proceedings is only really protected if witnesses give evidence frankly.

“Dr Steen provided evidence to the coroner, both in a formal witness statement and in an oral deposition.

“In neither [form of evidence] did Dr Steen disclose the failings in Claire’s treatment which she knew had occurred: one, the failure to repeat the initial blood test; and two, fluid mismanagement was a contributory factor in Claire’s hyponatraemia.

“In fact, she stated that Claire’s fluid regime in 1996 was normal. That was to give a misleading impression. Because the issues before the coroner were not about what was general or common practice in 1996, but rather included whether, on the specific facts of Claire’s case, the treatment she received may have been substandard.

“Dr Steen admitted to the inquiry that she knew in 2004 that things had been done wrongly. This was not surprising, because Claire’s treatment was not good practice.”

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Dr Heather Steen, who is facing a professional misconduct tribunal

Dr Heather Steen, who is facing a professional misconduct tribunal

Dr Heather Steen, who is facing a professional misconduct tribunal

Mr Forster also said Dr Steen failed to tell the coroner she had not requested consent for a full post-mortem to be carried out on Claire.

He said her recommendation for a brain-only post-mortem on the youngster represented a “mischief” by Dr Steen, as it prevented a full investigation to be carried out.

He also told the MPTS that Dr Steen’s position is that fluid management was an issue for other witnesses to deal with.

“Her case is ‘it’s not my bailiwick’,” he continued.

Mr Forster referred to evidence given to the Hyponatraemia Inquiry by Dr Steen, which he said was “an unequivocal admission” that information given to Claire’s parents after her death “was not a transparent and open concession about what had gone wrong in their daughter’s treatment”.

The lawyer also referred to expert evidence which he said has concluded “that if Dr Steen failed to appreciate” the fluid Claire received in hospital may have caused hyponatraemia, that this “amounted to an inadequate and inappropriate review”.

He said the expert had said this was “seriously below the standard expected of a reasonably competent consultant paediatrician”.

He continued: “Of course, the GMC’s case is she did understand these matters, she was just being dishonest.”

The tribunal was also told the GMC expert has said that “on the basis of the medical records and Mr Roberts’ evidence, Dr Steen’s communication with the family was inadequate, seriously below standard”.

The expert also said it was “inappropriate” for Dr Steen to complete Claire’s death certificate, as “she had insufficient information”.

The lawyer explained: “His opinion was that this was seriously below the required standard.”

Mr Forster also told the MPTS that Dr Steen has said she “acted in good faith” at all times and “did not seek to conceal any matter”.

He continued: “The case really turns on whether her various explanations hold water. Her credibility is therefore critical to the outcome of these allegations.”

The hearing continues.


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