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Potentially avoidable surgical complications may have contributed to the deaths of five cancer patients at Maidstone hospital, according to the NHS Trust that runs it.
The five all died within a year following upper gastrointestinal (GI) surgery at the hospital. Upper GI surgery has been suspended and the trust is now sending patients requiring it to St Thomas' Hospital in central London instead.
The incidents have been referred to the General Medical Council (GMC), and the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust has conducted its own internal inquiry.
It said that "while members of staff have been held to account, their overall standard of practice does not support further sanctions''.
The trust has apologised to the families affected and it has highlighted the need for improvements to be made.
Medical director Dr Paul Sigston said: "We are sorry that some patients did not receive the level of care and treatment that they should have due to potentially avoidable surgical complications.
"We are in contact with, and have apologised to, the families who have been affected and have been clear that we need to make improvements.''
As part of its review, the trust commissioned an assessment of its upper GI cancer surgery by the Royal College of Surgeons last year.
It highlighted that the service had a higher-than-expected complication rate in 2012 and last year, resulting in longer post-operative recovery times for some patients.
In a statement, the trust said: "The trust's review has since established that while the outcomes for patients who had this surgery were within expected levels, including one and three years survival, surgical complications may have contributed to the deaths of five patients in its care during 2012/13.
"These were associated with the use of laparoscopic techniques and were potentially avoidable.''
The arrangement with St Thomas' will continue for 12 months while the trust tries to improve its upper GI cancer surgery service.
Patients will still receive most of the upper GI intestinal cancer care locally, including chemotherapy, radiotherapy and initial surgical assessment.
Dr Sigston said: "Our first priority is to our patients and the actions we have taken will ensure the quality of care they receive is of the highest possible standard while improvements are made to address the findings of this review.
"There are important lessons for us here and we are working hard to improve the care we provide to patients.''
The trust said that due to patient confidentiality the review will not be released. A spokesman said its recommendations will be issued after all the families involved have been spoken to.
Solicitor Sharon Lam, acting for the widow of a 51-year-old father of one who died days after surgery, said her client feels they were treated "like a human guinea pig''.
Ms Lam said the man, who has not been named, had keyhole surgery to remove a tumour in his oesophagus last year and died from a haemorrhage five days after being discharged.
"Our main concern is that the deceased could have opted for a more conventional procedure, but this particular procedure was highly advocated by the surgeon,'' Ms Lam said.
"It was as if it was being sold to him, that he could have it done early and it would be carried out by a top surgeon.
"The patient was made to feel that they were quite lucky to have this surgery. Our client feels they have been treated like a human guinea pig to test the eligibility of this surgery.
"He was not told that it was a very new surgery. At no time was he offered the conventional surgery, and it all happened so quickly.''
She added that the man should have had a good prospect of recovery, but instead his death has left his family traumatised.