Father died after NHS 24 gave wrong diagnosis

Engineer John Willock was told to take Gaviscon by NHS 24 staff. Picture: Greg Macvean
Engineer John Willock was told to take Gaviscon by NHS 24 staff. Picture: Greg Macvean
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NHS 24 helpline staff have been criticised over their handling of a patient they told to take heartburn medicine less than a day before he died from blood poisoning.

In a fatal accident inquiry report into John Willock’s death yesterday, Sheriff Colin Pettigrew found a “number of concerns and shortcomings” in how NHS 24 call handlers and nurses dealt with Mr Willock’s pleas.

The 43-year-old, from Erskine, Renfrewshire, felt ill after falling on ice while delivering presents on Christmas Eve 2009. The father-of-two hurt his knee but also felt “fluish”, cold, shivery and nauseous, prompting him to repeatedly call NHS 24.

In one recording played to the inquiry, Mr Willock pleaded: “Is there anything anyone could suggest or is there anything I can get for it? I cannot move. I am bedridden because of the diarrhoea.”

When Mr Willock, an engineer, rang for a second time the day before he died, call handler Ann McDermid failed to inform another nurse Mr Willock had previously spoken to.

The sheriff said she was guilty of “numerous failings”. A recorded conversation relayed that the nurse had said “the patient’s got burning sensation” and “he’s got a burning sensation in his chest for about ten hours” and “an’ aw [sic] the other symptoms, OK?”

Nurse Fiona McCulloch, who took over the call, then ticked the wrong boxes on her diagnostic screen. If she had ticked the one marked “persistent abdominal upper abdominal discomfort”, an emergency ambulance would have been sent for Mr Willock, the inquiry heard.

Instead, she told him to take Gaviscon and cold milk, later admitting this was inappropriate for someone suffering from sickness and diarrhoea.

On the third call, NHS 24 call handler Carolyn Fergie admitted at the inquiry she was “tired” at the time and confessed to being “abrupt”, rushing the call and failing to listen to what Mr Willock was telling her.

She failed to record that Mr Willock was a “return caller” whose condition was “serious and urgent”.

As a result, nurse Pamela Scally treated it as a first call and advised Mr Willock to contact his GP within 36 hours.

His condition deteriorated on 29 December and he died at home. He was visited the day he died by his GP, Dr Murray Macpherson, who decided he was not ill enough for hospital.

However, Sheriff Pettigrew said he could find no “reasonable precautions” or system failings that may have prevented Mr Willock’s death.

He said: “There was insufficient evidence led before me to conclude that, even if a GP had visited Mr Willock [prior to the visit of Dr Macpherson] and given him an anti-emetic injection and arranged his admission to hospital, there was a ‘real and lively possibility’ that would in any event have made a difference. I find the correction of the numerous failings of the call handlers and nurse advisors … do not constitute ‘reasonable precautions’ whereby Mr Willock’s death may have been avoided.”

NHS 24 medical director, Professor George Crooks, said: “All staff involved have been subject to robust review of their practice and appropriate training and support put in place. These learnings have also been shared across our frontline staff.”

Last night, Mr Willock’s family in a statement said: “John was loved by his family and is greatly missed. Although the family is disappointed the sheriff did not make specific findings regarding the GPs, the sheriff’s findings support the family view that there were significant failings on the part of the call handlers and nurse advisers involved in John’s care.”

In 2007, Gordon Greig, from Cardross, near Helensburgh, died of a massive heart attack after being told to take Gaviscon by staff at NHS 24.