A meeting of the German Transplantation Society (DGT) this week discussed what one top official said was the worst case of corruption he had ever heard of – it is thought at least 25 patients were pushed up the organ transplant lists.
The Süddeutsche Zeitung reported on Friday that although 25 liver transplantation cases from the Göttingen University Hospital are being examined, more files remain that have not yet been checked.
Hans Lilie, criminal law professor at Halle University, who chairs the standing commission on organ transplantation at the German Medical Association, told the paper that those at the meeting had been very emotional when they realized how many cases were suspect.
He had always been able to reassure potential donors and their families that the matter was always dealt with in a fair manner in Germany, he said. This would no longer be the case.
It is the worst case he had ever heard of, said Lilie.
The Süddeutsche Zeitung said the trick was a simple one. Doctors would simply make the chosen patient look sicker on paper than they actually were. Those with liver problems were often given invented kidney problems as well, putting them – on paper – at greater risk, and thus bumping them up the donor organ waiting list.
Lilie said this would have created a longer wait for those patients who were already high up the list. Whether they got an organ in time, or whether some may have died as a result of having to wait for longer, would be subject to further investigations, he said.
It would be very difficult to prove such an allegation, said Axel Rahmel, medical director of Eurotransplant, the eight-country transplantation agency. He said the delay would also work its way down the waiting list. “It's possible that the long waiting time did not affect patients from one to 14, but probably patient 15,” he told the paper.
The main suspect at Göttingen hospital is said to have manipulated patient files in several ways, but often left enough inconsistencies for this to be noticed on examination.
He is now the subject of a criminal investigation by the Braunschweig state prosecutor for a number of suspected offences including corruption. Flats have already been raided and files seized.
Spokeswoman Serena Stamer told the paper that whether he deliberately manipulated files and if he took money illegally remained subjects for the investigation. The man in question has not commented and colleagues at the hospital do not know where he is.
Until he took over as head transplantation doctor at the hospital hardly any liver transplantations were carried out there – but he pushed the rate up to around 50 a year, which is a lot for Germany, the paper said.
Experts have ruled out the idea that he could have been alone in the corruption. “It is certain that it was not one person alone,” said Lilie. Initial investigations also suggest that money was paid by patients directly to doctors – to such a degree that in one case the commission made a formal complaint of organ trafficking.
The doctor was removed from his post as soon as suspicion was raised against him, the hospital said.
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And Eurotransplant has introduced new rules which link a referring doctor's name to his or her recommendation of a place on the organ waiting list.
Yet the Süddeutsche Zeitung also reported that the doctor concerned had got into trouble in 2005 while working at a Bavarian university hospital, when he took a Eurotransplant liver to a patient in Jordan – having said it was destined for a patient in Regensburg.
A criminal investigation against him was halted and after he promised not to do such a thing again, he was allowed to continue working – and got a promotion to the Göttingen hospital.