Rising star becomes embroiled in protracted whistleblower dispute

November 1, 2006

Chan had blown the whistle on his employer, the Royal London Hospital, by claiming that managers had hidden and removed thousands of unread x-rays, starting in 2002. After a 19-month investigation, he was fired, and the case was reported in several U.K. national newspapers.

When I first met Dr. Otto Chan, he was standing in front of his poster at the 2003 RSNA meeting. It was about Joseph Merrick, the 19th-century Englishman who was portrayed by John Hurt in the 1980 hit movie, "The Elephant Man." Chan was only listed as a coauthor, but he spoke with such authority, enthusiasm, and passion that I suspected he was the driving force behind the research.

The exhibit won a Magna Cum Laude, and his immense pride was obvious. I sensed he was also enjoying the controversy generated by a top award going to a historic poster. I added his name to my list of radiologists to follow.

About 18 months later, Chan was an invited speaker at the European Society of Gastrointestinal Radiology's annual meeting in Florence. He gave a sparkling lecture about the role of the radiologist in the trauma team, arguing that multislice CT had presented radiology with a heaven-sent opportunity to become a central player in emergency medicine. The delegates loved it, giving him an enthusiastic reception. I wrote up the presentation for the November 2005 edition of DI Europe.

During this past summer, however, Chan made headlines for very different reasons. He had blown the whistle on his employer, the Royal London Hospital, by claiming that managers had hidden and removed thousands of unread x-rays, starting in 2002. After a 19-month investigation, he was fired, and the case was reported in several U.K. national newspapers ("Dismissed U.K. whistleblower fires back," DiagnosticImaging.com, 15 September).

It is impossible for onlookers to determine whether Chan has been victimized for speaking the truth or whether he behaved inappropriately toward clinical colleagues, as alleged by management. His ESGAR lecture demonstrated that Chan believed in speaking his mind, and that he wore his heart on his sleeve. He showed photographs of the Royal London, referring to its dilapidated condition and the urgent need for new investment.

In many ways, the situation is comparable to the bitter feud at London's Hammersmith Hospital (see DI Europe July/August 2000, p. 14), which led to the departure of Prof. Peter Dawson and the early retirement of Prof. David Allison. Clashes of personality probably played a major part in both cases. Perhaps these disputes also highlight the difficulties and tensions of running a radiology department in a cash-starved public health service.

Chan now has more time to commit to other projects. In March 2007, Blackwell Publishing is due to release the second edition of his book, ABC of Emergency Radiology. The ultimate loser, however, is the U.K. radiological profession. Not only has the case reportedly cost over Euro 2 million, but the career of a gifted doctor and a lively character has been derailed. Most important, patients have been deprived of his undoubted talents.