Action over late doctor call-out

May 29, 1998

The vice-chancellor, student union and parents of a student who caught meningitis at Swansea University have all complained to the local health authority about a 12-hour delay in treatment.

In an outbreak early this year, ten students were admitted for treatment for the life-threatening illness, and 850 were given vaccinations. No one died.

According to a report compiled by Swansea student union president Paul Edwards, doctors in a deputising service employed by the campus health centre to handle out-of-hours calls, refused to visit first-year student Claire Maitland, who began feeling ill at 5pm on Saturday, January 31. She was finally taken to a hospital by university porters 12 hours after first complaining of illness. She is recovering and hopes to return to the university next academic year.

Swansea's vice-chancellor, Robin Williams, wrote to the health authority on February 20 complaining about HealthCall, the deputising service, and seeking an inquiry. Since then, Ms Maitland's parents have also complained, and the university has said this action now takes legal precedence.

A spokesman confirmed that the health authority had received and is dealing with a complaint. "This will be heard in camera, and confidentiality will be maintained," he said.

A HealthCall spokesman said: "We will go along with any investigation and comply with any resulting recommendations. These doctors involved were using a (call-out) protocol agreed with the Local Medical Committee."

However, former LMC chair Ian Millington said there is no protocol for responding to a request for a patient visit, only guidelines. He said: "It is for the doctor to discuss with the patient and decide. There will be a digital recording of the conversations, and someone will be able to hear these and investigate what happened."

Mr Edwards said he has statements from those involved on the night in question. His account is that student friends of Ms Maitland wanted to take her to the health centre but found her too ill to move. Warning signs such as "blotches on Claire's arms being a symptom of septicaemia" were passed to the deputising service at 4am the next morning, but no doctor came out.

After another fruitless call, the duty porters decided to drive Ms Maitland to Singleton district general hospital, which has no accident and emergency unit.

Ms Maitland was transferred across the city to Morriston Hospital. She spent seven weeks in intensive care being treated for meningococcal septicaemia.


In the past academic year, meningitis killed 15 university students

The Meningitis Research Foundation says that at least 23 universities have reported a total of 64 incidents of meningitis since September 1997

Research by Keith Neal of Leicester University shows that students are particularly vulnerable. The rate of meningococcal illness among non-student 18 to 25-year-olds is between 5 and 7 per 100,000, but among students this doubles to 10.3 per 100,000. The risk to students in universities where many first years live in halls of residence and there are fewer mature students, is higher still - 15.8 per 100,000

One in ten people is believed to carry meningococcal bacteria unwittingly. It is not fully understood why some people can carry the bacteria to no ill effect while others develop the disease

Southampton University - which last year had the worst recorded outbreak of the disease in a British university, three deaths among its freshers - will next month host a conference on meningitis and students.

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