Dissection and Ethics. Who Makes the Call?

It can be hard for someone not invested in the process, to understand why dissection is either necessary, or what the process entails. There is understandably, an emotional component surrounding the fact that the cadavers we are dissecting are people who gave their bodies up specifically for the purpose of learning, study and enquiry.  For the most part this emotion comes not from the potential donors themselves but from the sensitivities of those dealing with the business of who should or shouldn’t be allowed in a dissecting room. (more…)

Gil Hedley

Gil Hedley

In 2006 I travelled to New York to attend a workshop with Tom Myers hoping to drag him over to tour and teach Bowen people in the UK, which he subsequently did.  We also did a dissection together which is another story!

His workshop was being held at The Breathing Project in Manhattan and whilst chatting one day a man called Leslie Kaminoff told me about Gil Hedley and how I should get on one of his classes.

Long story short, I found myself in 2007 on a plane to San Francisco and the process of falling in love with dissection and anatomy began.

Gil was already an old hand at this business and in the layers around the muscle and deep fascia held no drama for me. In the visceral tissues I found myself freaking out and it took me several years for me to find my way around these tissues with any degree of confidence, urged on my Gil and his deep love of visceral tissues.  In the last year, adding to my understanding the deep function, cellular behaviour and chemistry of what is going on in these tissues has only increased my love of the area and even the toughest day working in this tissue is now a pleasure and thrill.

At the end of the 2007 class, I asked Gil if he would come to the UK.  Being asked that kind of question regularly myself, my response is always, “Yes sure!”  I am fairly confident that I will walk away from that conversation and it’ll be last time I ever hear from that person.

Gil was no different and felt pretty sure that I’d never be heard from again.  Point being, I only asked because I was pretty sure I could find somewhere to work from. St George’s hospital London and Cery Davies, the then professor of anatomy, were only too pleased to take our cash and offer us the chance to run a course, leaving Gil with no option but to agree to come over to the UK.

So began ten years of working with Gil and learning his approaches to dissection, at the same time building my own understanding and methods of both embalming and dissection and studying like a demon to raise my knowledge. I doubt that I will ever get to the level of Gil in terms of dissection skill and knowledge, but I like to think that with his guidance, I have developed myself and my eye over the years to bring a certain something to a dissection room.

My approach these days is somewhat different to Gil in terms of defining what it is we are doing in a lab, but only from the side of how the content is thought about and delivered .  The dissection principles remain pretty much how Gil designed it.  Why change what works?

Gil is a master dissector, anatomist, story teller and human being and my approaches and ways of dissecting are learned almost entirely from him.  His hard work, dedication, forward thinking and sheer determination have laid the ground for people like me to follow, on the shoulders of giants indeed.

The methods of reflecting skin and then superficial fascia as a separate entity is something he pioneered and although not something that I generally do in such depth any more mainly due to time limits, it has created an understanding of these tissues as a unit which is unique.  The ability to challenge some of the more worrying ideas around this layer has come almost entirely from Gil.

I would be the first to admit that Gil and I have not always seen eye to eye in terms of approach, content or management in various aspects, but the ability to disagree, argue and even fall out is perhaps something that  is the result of getting close to people.

Gil was and is my inspiration for dissecting and challenging the illogical and old fashioned concepts of anatomy that still reign supreme today, even in the face of challenges.  A dissection workshop with Gil is truly a remarkable experience and one that anyone with aspirations to understand the human form should attend.

Many people will have been on a workshop with Gil and have their lives changed.  Few however would be able  to say that ten years later their lives were dedicated to the same process and path that started in San Francisco all those years ago in an experience for which I will always remain profoundly grateful.

Dr Ian Scott, Nottingham University Hospital

Dr Ian Scott, Nottingham University Hospital

Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.

The mediocre mind is incapable of understanding the man who refuses to bow blindly to conventional prejudices and chooses instead to express his opinions courageously and honestly.   Albert Einstein

The Human Tissue Act 2004 is an act of the UK parliament in England and Wales which was brought about in response to the Alder Hay scandals in the 1990s. The Human Tissue Authority was also created and given the responsibility for regulating and enforcing the act.

Each premises conducting work with human tissue is required to be licensed and a designated individual – DI – is assigned to oversee this work and given discretion as to the kind of work and access given to licensed premises.

For the most part the HTA does a good job of working with the anatomy world, but in the case of giving DIs power, the potential for a disconnect can happen.  The HTA gives no written guidance to the DI in terms of who should be allowed in, assuming that they are intelligent people with a degree of common sense.  The primary responsibilities of the DI are threefold:

  1. that suitable practices are used in undertaking the licensed activity
  2. that other persons working under the licence are suitable
  3. that the conditions of the licence are complied with.

In 2016 I was invited to run courses at Nottingham University Hospital and offered an NHS service level agreement by the trust.  The feedback from the courses I ran was outstanding  and I was invited to take part in anatomical research by a surgical team from within the trust.  The team running the centre are on record as saying that my classes were among the very best they had ever seen and everyone seemed very happy.  Attendees from physiotherapy positions at Premier League football clubs, Formula One racing teams and clinical specialists from within the NHS had attended and were massively impressed with the content and teaching.

In November 2017 however, the DI, Dr Ian Scott, decided that he would move to terminate my activity at Nottingham University Hospital, and aided in this by the trust secretary Mike O’Daly, issued a letter which, even though based on false content, stopped my work in its tracks and resulted in the cancellation of classes already booked and agreed with by NUH.

The reason?  Dr Scott, a published scientist of the highest order and presumably a stickler for accurate referencing, didn’t like my opinion based blog posts.   From emails obtained after three months of pressing the NUH to comply with a freedom of information act request, it can be seen that Dr Scott used out of context quotes and ad hominem arguments to support his stopping of my work to his trust secretary Mr O’Daly.

He reasons also that the study of fascia is “an abstract sideline of anatomy”, although a simple Google search of ‘study of fascia’ might have helped to counter that thought, returning 286,000 results in 0.3 seconds.  The idea that perhaps he should attend one of my classes and actually engage with the process didn’t occur to him, even when invited to sit in.  Indeed he was urged to do so by his own team, who praised and strongly supported me and my work and wished to see the classes continue in Nottingham.

Dr Scott did not phone me, write to me, interview me, or in any way attempt to ascertain what I was doing on the premises.  He refused to enter a mediation process and refused to allow any independent assessment of my work, insisting that in spite of ten years of experience in dissection, I was “not qualified” to teach anatomy,  regardless of the fact that I have never claimed to ‘teach anatomy.’  The Scientific Method indeed.

Although promising to be guided by the team running the centre, and to defer to his clinical lead in the teaching of anatomy, he went against their advice and opinion.  The issues that Dr Scott as DI had to satisfy himself were simply the three mentioned above.  From my own perspective and as a matter of record of that of the team involved in the day to day running of the centre, all three conditions were met.  At no stage was there any suggestion or claim of wrongdoing on my part from Dr Scott or his team, and no reason was given for the termination of my classes, details supporting his decision only coming to light after a freedom of information request.

Science and its progress has no room for personal enmity or beliefs, yet Dr Scott seemed to have the personally held and demonstrably unfounded belief that what I did was not appropriate, without having properly evaluated the content and ironically at the same time, cherry picking my own blog posts to suggest how unscientific I am.  Feedback and comments from the many clinicians who have attended and witnessed my class was also ignored.  His assertion that the classes were “unlawful” under the terms of the act and the permissions obtained by NUH was concerning but according to the HTA and independent legal opinion, was not the case. Dr Scott is not a lawyer.  A collaborative approach, where willingness to work together and develop better systems and clearer permission forms, would have seen Nottingham become a worldwide centre of excellence for the teaching, study and understanding of human movement and muscular skeletal pain and discomfort and was on course to attract research and interest from around the globe.

The attendees themselves were also the target of Dr Scott. Apparently unaware of the existence of the nine regulatory health care bodies in the UK including Chiropractic and Osteopathy, Dr Scott is on record as saying that he, “didn’t consider Chiropractors or Osteopaths as professional,” that they were “unregulated” and that, “…we see the adverse effects of that practice.  Torn ligaments.  They do things we have to put right.” Only HPC practitioners (including dieticians and art therapists) registered in the UK are acceptable to attend dissection classes as far as he is concerned .  He even expressed incredulity that a nurse practitioner should attend a class on the thorax, heart and lungs, in spite of her being a regulated health professional.

Holding up scientific progress and important medical research and preventing inward investment and income for the NHS, while at the same time making poorly judged and incorrect comments about regulated health professionals is not something you would expect from someone holding a position of major responsibility. With power comes responsibility.  Decisions which affect the future of medical endeavours should not be made without due consideration to evidence and fabrication and hyperbole are not a basis for sound decision making.

What this highlights is the distance between the regulation and enforcement of the Human Tissue Act and those who use their ‘discretion’ to prevent wider engagement for reasons that are in Dr Scott’s case, unclear or unsound.  Perhaps the time has come for a debate about how best to control access to those who sincerely wish to study and understand anatomy and human movement, but who are not registered health professionals.

The Human Tissue Act places no restrictions in terms of access, but simply asks that appropriate permissions have been given by donors.  The interest in anatomy and the study of the human form is growing.  Thousands of practitioners all over the world are taking care of the aches, pains and problems of populations. Without them the UK’s NHS would implode.  They should be taught properly and fully and have access to good study material, including dissection classes.  Far from being a drain on NHS resources, classes such as we offer, bring income to otherwise under or even unused facilities as well as providing research opportunities to advance the understanding of the human form.

Everyone entering a dissection room should be (and in our case is) carefully vetted and strict guidelines put in place. Institutions and operators can and should collaborate to ensure that respect and diligence is applied when dealing with cadaveric material.  But putting up a wall, creating an ‘us and them’ environment does not help.

Dr Scott is of course welcome to comment and engage in discussion at any stage and I would be delighted to debate both his actions and understanding of the wider issues at stake.