Pam Savage

Pam Savage

Guest Blogger at See Full Details
RN, BA (Maq), DipN (Lon), MHPEd (UNSW), DipLaw (Syd), EdDoc (CQU) As a Lawyer and Clinician, this background was brought to her role as a Lecturer, at CQ University to undergraduate and postgraduate students. This experience also served her well while working with and educating Aboriginal Health Workers.
Pam Savage

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As often happens I experienced an intersection between two issues.  I was researching nursing ethics and then read an article published by the ABC written by Dr Norman Swan revisiting his experience of and knowledge about Dr McBride who had recently died (29 June 2018).

I vaguely knew about his history but there were many more facts and particulars in the post.   For the young’uns amongst us the story might be unknown.  William McBride was “credited” with identifying the link between thalidomide, prescribed for pregnancy related nausea and the birth of children with terrible physical defects.

Something I had not known was in fact it was Sister Sparrow who had made the link, she had observed that McBride’s patients who had taken the drug were the ones who gave birth to affected babies.  None of the other obstetricians had prescribed the medication and none of their patients had these tragic outcomes.

In his later years the much feted Dr McBride fell from grace.  His research was seriously flawed and findings were made up. 

So I found myself mulling over the ethical issues that his history threw up.  Certainly his original prescriptions were based on knowledge at the time and his letter to the Lancet asking if others had seen similar problems were the basis for getting considerable fame.  It was his later research that he claimed proved a relationship between medications then on the market and birth defects.  The research was faked, he was famous for being an expert on the relationship between birth defects and certain medications and his Foundation 41 needed to achieve results.

It ended up that he was deregistered and he is often used as an example to student researchers about the risks of failing to adhere to absolute objectivity and ethical research.  The many hurdles and checks imposed by research ethics committees before allowing studies to commence not to mention the Medical Research Council’s ethical standards are often difficult for students to come to grips with.  Educating students about ethical requirements for research is a critical part of every academics role.  The personal and professional pitfalls that led McBride to public disgrace are linked to ethical behaviour.

The reference to Nurse Sparrow was another thing to consider.  At the time Norman Swann reported that others had known of her contribution.  Had that ever been publicised I wondered.  Checking up I found that the ABC had followed up and contacted the nurse who did not want to be interviewed and had made positive comments about the doctor.

Fair enough, her right.  Still the whole story raises so many ethical issues and considerations.  In health work we tend to stick with the key bioethical principles to guide our decision making but we as nurses do undertake research, do identify issues and we can make links between cause and effect so the standards guiding our ethical behaviour are potentially very broad.

Yes we are accountable for satisfying our nurse ethical standards but how many of us really know and appreciate the ethical dimensions of our work.  Certainly Dr William McBride did not.

There are some fabulous webinar recordings by Pam Savage regarding Nurses and the Law on the Nurses for Nurses Network. The  Nurses for Nurses Network provides good information and CPD  on an array of nursing topics in a range of easy learning ways including webinars and quizzes on the latest information that Nurses need to know – remember the Nurses for Nurses Network was created by Australian Nurses for Nurses!