13 Feb 2017

The Unfortunate Experiment, Doctors in Denial

From Nine To Noon, 9:07 am on 13 February 2017

It's not too late for hospital authorities to apologise and acknowledge the harm caused to women by National Women's Unfortunate Experiment, a whistleblower says.

The study by Herbert Green, which began in 1966, followed women with major cervical abnormalities without definitively treating them, and without their knowledge or consent.

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The study was carried out at National Women's Hospital. Photo: National Women's Hospital 1973

Ron Jones was a junior doctor at the hospital during Professor Green's study, and was involved in exposing the experiment in the 1980s.

He said it was unclear how many women were part of the study, but about 70 developed cancer and more than half of them died.

"About 2000 baby girls were given unnecessary smears and it has also been forgotten Dr Green obstructed the development of a national organised screening programme for women.

"There's been a major error in the medical system during these years and it's time there are some apologies," Prof Jones said.

Three decades on, he has written a book called Doctors in Denial about this chapter in New Zealand's medical history.

A Ministerial Committee of Inquiry into the experiment, the Cartwright Inquiry, found there had been a failure to adequately treat cervical cancer in some patients, as well as significant and sustained failures in doctors' ethical practices.

Judge Cartwright also identified systemic failures in the ethical approval and surveillance procedures for the conduct of research and new treatments at National Women's noting that the ethics committee lacked independence and failed to protect patients and promote their welfare.

No apology was ever made.

Prof Jones said people were still in denial about what had happened.

"The truth is there was an experiment, women were harmed, it has been estimated more than 3000 additional lives were lost through cervical cancer during these years - it is time for an apology.

"I don't think Dr Green wanted his patients to be harmed in any way but he had a mental block and didn't see what was happening," he said.

Mr Jones said it was the job of other hospital staff to raise the alarm but there was a hierarchy system in place, so staff felt they should not interfere.

In a statement, Auckland District Health Board chief medical officer Margaret Wilsher said no amount of compensation the women received at the time could make up for their stress and distress.

She said she expressed her deepest sympathy for everything they went through at the time, and subsequent to that.

She said the district health board would organise a ceremony to remember the impact of these events, which was expected to be in May.