Oncologist who was dubbed ‘God’ and ‘Dr Hope’ by grateful patients AVOIDS being struck off for giving inappropriate treatment after testimony from celebrities he cared for and Professor Lockdown Neil Ferguson
An oncologist dubbed ‘God’ and ‘Dr Hope’ by grateful patients today avoided being struck off for giving inappropriate treatments after testimony from celebrities he cared for and the personal backing of ‘Professor Lockdown‘ Neil Ferguson.
Professor Justin Stebbing, 50, was spared by a Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS) tribunal, who instead suspended him for nine months after acknowledging the ‘unprecedented testimonial evidence’ that had been provided on his behalf.
In October, the world-renowned oncologist admitted failings over 12 patients between 2014 and 2017, including over-treating some close to death or failing fully to explain risks.
But he was backed by – among others – his Imperial College colleague Neil Ferguson, who wrote: ‘I urge you to impose some more lenient penalty for such transgressions as he may have committed.
‘As far as I can see his lapses have been trivial relative to the enormous good he’s done as a medical scientist and doctor.’
Professor Justin Stebbing. In October, the world-renowned oncologist admitted failings over 12 patients between 2014 and 2017, including over-treating some close to death or failing fully to explain risks
One unnamed celebrity said: ‘He’s a world-class oncologist. With my case history, unsurprisingly I feel I owe my quality of life and life itself to Professor Stebbing’s care and I believe standard treatment would have seen my children lose their mum while they were still school kids.
‘I’ve learned to live with the fear of cancer and more recently the fear of succumbing to Covid – they are unwanted gifts from Mother Nature.
‘But the organisation protecting safety has needlessly added a man-made fear that of losing the care of this life -saving oncologist.
‘I am dismayed that the removal of his license could even be a consideration, even more so when there are lesser sanctions that can be imposed.’
The tribunal heard how his ‘international reputation’ for innovative cancer treatment has led to wealthy cancer patients from around the globe turning to him in the hope of extending their lives.
They’ve included Sir Michael Parkinson, actor Lynda Bellingham and New Zealand multi-millionaire Sir Douglas Myers.
Prof Stebbing was accused of failing to provide good clinical care to 12 patients between March 2014 and March 2017.
He initially sought to defend many of his clinical decisions but eventually admitted 30 of 36 charges against him and was found guilty of three others.
Failures included the ‘inappropriate’ treatment of patients given their advanced cancer or poor prognosis, overstating life expectancy and the benefits of chemotherapy and continuing to treat patients when it was futile.
He also admitted failing to gain informed consent for treatment from patients, failing to keep proper records and dishonesty after attempting to cover his tracks by altering paperwork.
The tribunal ruled in November that Professor Stebbing’s fitness to practise was impaired due to his misconduct with all 12 patients.
The General Medical Council said that Prof Stebbing wrongly prescribed drugs outside of gold-standard medical protocols, often to frail patients. He is pictured above with the late Sir Roger Moore
It pored over the often harrowing details of each patient’s cancer struggle, with evidence from dozens of witnesses, which included patients’ families, experts and Prof Stebbing himself.
He had referenced the ‘Lazarus-like responses’ to treatment among some of his other patients and described how he took on challenging and difficult cases to ‘try to change the certainty of death’.
But a recurring theme in the case was patients receiving treatment in spite of their disease progression, deteriorating condition or poor prognosis, and most of the 12 died within a month.
Experts called by the GMC spoke of the need to used evidence-based medicine, to recognise the limitations of treatment and have ‘honest and open’ conversations with patients and their families to help them make difficult decisions about their end of life care.
But he argued that he’d reflected on his past mistakes and had been on a ‘humbling’ and ‘chastening’ learning experience.
He said he’d been wrong to treat patients, despite wanting to give them ‘a chance’ or ‘hope’, and was now a ‘very cautious, conservative doctor’.
The 12 patients, he said, had been difficult cases and he’d used his clinical judgment and ‘fallen the wrong side’ of a fine-line by opting to treat.
Sharon Beattie, QC for the GMC, had sought a sanction of erasure arguing that Prof Stebbing had ‘repeatedly’ insisted that clinical matters had been ‘fine-line’ decisions leading to concerns about his lack of insight and his behaviour being repeated.
There were further concerns about an ‘ongoing risk’ to patient safety, she said, and he’d embarked on a ‘persistent course of conduct’ and ‘persistent dishonesty’ which he’d attempted to cover-up.
Prof Stebbing had sought to avoid a more serious sanction by highlighting his extensive research work, some of which he said was ongoing and near to completion, and the detrimental affect it would have to his career.
He argued that it would be hard for projects to continue if he was struck off.
Prof Stebbing’s QC Mary O’Rourke said she disagreed with the tribunal’s finding on impairment and noted that his lapses had occurred in ‘one of the worst periods of his life’ when he was suffering mental health problems.
She said that Prof Stebbing had not taken on the 12 patients ‘for money’ but for the ‘best of motives’ and the ‘greater good’, even if his actions became misguided.
Professor Stebbing was backed by – among others – his Imperial College colleague Neil Ferguson, who wrote: ‘I urge you to impose some more lenient penalty for such transgressions as he may have committed
Ms O’Rourke read out dozens of testimonials in support of Prof Stebbing from patients and their families, leading oncologists and colleagues who told of his ‘genius’, ‘excellence’ and novel research which had garnered international recognition.
Some claimed it would be an ‘unbelievable tragedy’ and an ‘unconscionable and incalculable’ loss if he was unable to continue working.
In handing out the tribunal’s sanction decision, MPTS panel chair Margaret Obi noted that it had considered a number of factors which could justify erasure but there were also factors which indicated a lesser sanction of suspension would adequately protect the public and the wider public interest.
As well as the ‘unprecedented testimonial evidence’ submitted on his behalf, she noted how Prof Stebbing’s ‘poor mental health and personal stressors’ at the time of his dishonesty.
She described the behaviour as ‘uncharacteristic’, saying it took place more than four years ago and had not been repeated.
Ms Obi also noted Prof Stebbing’s significant remediation work and that there was ‘no evidence of a deep-seated attitudinal failing’.
She said the starting point for suspension was 12 months to mark the gravity of his misconduct.
‘However, the tribunal also balanced this against the particular circumstances in this case,’ she said.
‘The tribunal had regard to the innovative and ground-breaking work that Prof Stebbing is currently undertaking in the interests of the public and the testimonials from a wide range of people including renowned award-winning scientists and clinicians from around the world.’
She said that while PS Stebbing had argued his contract with ICL would be terminated if he was suspended, there was a possibility that ‘because of his status and unique talent’ – as noted by his testimonial witnesses – the clinical and academic community in oncology ‘would endeavour to ensure his work is not discontinued or delayed indefinitely’.
Ms Obi added that tribunal took the view that given the particular circumstances of this case there was public interest in permitting Prof Stebbing to return to practice as soon as possible but lowest period of suspension it could impose in order to mark the seriousness of his misconduct was 9 months.