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BMJ. 2007 November 3; 335(7626): 903.
PMCID: PMC2048884

GP who benefited from patient's will failed to disclose details when signing cremation form

A GP who signed a patient's cremation documents without disclosing that he was a beneficiary in her will was last week suspended for 10 months by the UK General Medical Council.

Alan Howlett of the Fremington Medical Centre in Barnstaple, Devon, stated on form B of an Application for Cremation that he had no pecuniary interest in the death of his 91 year old patient, named only as Mrs A. In fact he already knew that she had bequeathed him a share of her estate.

He had become friendly with Mrs A when attending to her husband at the time of his death and had soon established a relationship “above that expected of your role as her general practitioner,” the panel found. His colleagues at the practice joked that she was his private patient, he told the hearing. He made frequent home visits and acknowledged providing “social care,” which included collecting her pension and paying her electricity bill.

He learnt that he had been included in Mrs A's will, he told the panel, in March 2006, four months before she died. But he did not inform his colleagues until after her death.

Upon learning of the omission in the cremation documents, his practice colleagues informed the North Devon Primary Care Trust, and Dr Howlett was cautioned by police in November 2006 for willfully making a false statement with a view to the burning of human remains contrary to the Cremation Act of 1908.

Dr Howlett told the GMC's fitness to practise panel, “I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I was doing it to fulfil the wish of my patient that she would not have to undergo a postmortem [examination]. She felt it was a barbaric procedure.” Two witnesses at the hearing supported his claim that Mrs A wished to avoid an autopsy.

The GMC also accused Dr Howlett of misleading his practice partners in not notifying them of his legacy when he learnt of it. The practice had negotiated two partnership deeds, one in 1995 which said that patients' legacies to partners “should not be brought into account,” and another a week after Mrs A's death that said that partners could keep bequests but must notify their colleagues.

This second deed was being negotiated when Dr Howlett learnt he was a beneficiary, the panel found, and he had therefore misled his colleagues by not mentioning it. He was cleared, however, of intending to mislead them.

Announcing the suspension, the panel chairman, Howard Freeman, noted that “this case is about an isolated event in relation to a single patient,” but he told Dr Howlett that “the offence for which you were cautioned is one which is particularly serious in professional terms.”

Dr Howlett told the panel that he regretted his dishonesty in filling out the cremation form. “I have learnt that patients' wishes in this respect are not above the law,” he said.


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