Some mortuaries are employing unqualified staff because of cost-cutting measures
There have been more than 530 serious incidents where NHS trusts have released the wrong body to families or lost, damaged or kept the organs or bodies of babies without family permission, new figures reveal.
Data on serious incidents within NHS mortuaries shows there were 55 cases where mortuary staff handed over the wrong body since 2017.
There were also 35 instances where a baby’s body was lost, damaged or its organs were retained after death against the express wishes of parents.
More than 180 bodies were damaged while being storied in hospital mortuaries or during post-mortems while 37 organs were lost by staff.
The data from the Human Tissue Authority reveals serious incidents in NHS mortuaries has been falling in recent years, but the errors still affected more than 100 families in the latest year to March 2021.
The professional body for mortuary staff, the Association of Anatomical Pathology Technology, warned NHS trusts were often recruiting unqualified cheaper staff to work in mortuaries and is lobbying ministers to change the rules so staff have to be properly registered.
John Pitchers, chair of the AAPT, told The Independent: “Incidents such as these are extremely distressing for the friends and family of the deceased patient, but also for the staff working in the mortuaries involved, who try their best to uphold the highest standards of patient care in often difficult circumstances.
The fact that the mortuary profession is not a profession regulated by statute – as other professions such as laboratory staff and paramedics are – makes the maintenance of these quality standards more difficult than it needs to be.
“For instance, there is no legal bar to hospital trusts or local authorities employing unqualified staff to work within mortuaries, alongside or in place of qualified staff, and we have seen a large increase of these staff being employed – often as a cost-saving exercise by underfunded organisations.”
He said that the number of incidents investigated by the Human Tissue Authority, which regulates mortuary services represented just 0.02 per cent of all deaths in England and Wales in 2021 but added: “Nonetheless, we are committed to reducing incidents even further.”
The latest data published by the HTA also reveals there were 30 serious security breaches in NHS mortuaries since 2017.
In January, the family of Emily Whelan, who believed she had been killed, won a human rights lawsuit against Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust after it failed to preserve her body.
The 25-year-old died in 2016 after she was taken to hospital and her family were told she had an epileptic seizure.
Suspicions led a coroner to order a forensic post-mortem almost a year later, but a pathologist found her body was so badly decomposed it severely hampered his investigation.
Dr Mike Osborn, president of the Royal College of Pathologists said: “These serious incidents are extremely regrettable and can have a devastating impact on bereaved families.
“Maintaining adequate staffing in mortuaries can be difficult, as in other areas in the pathology departments of all hospitals.”
The Human Tissue Authority told The Independent it could take a range of regulatory actions if it was concerned about breaches of the law. It said incidents were investigated and mortuaries were inspected by the HTA.
It has the powers to impose restrictions on a mortuary and can require individuals to be replaced and ultimately can revoke the licences of specific mortuaries.
A spokesperson said: “The HTA licenses, regulates and inspects organisations that remove, store and use human tissues and cells for specific purposes, including post-mortem examinations.
“Our regulation requires mortuaries to meet strict criteria, including maintaining the dignity of those who pass through their care as part of their licensed day-to-day responsibilities. We also work with them giving guidance and advice to ensure they maintain the required standards.
“We understand that every incident that may affect the dignity of the deceased is distressing for families. This is why we require establishments to notify us of serious incidents to ensure that they and we can take appropriate action. We expect the establishment to investigate the incident, identify the root cause and work with us to put in place suitable corrective and preventative actions.”