Report released on NZ Women's Hospital's 'Unfortunate Experiment'

  • 08/02/2018
Report released on NZ Women's Hospital's 'Unfortunate Experiment'
Photo credit: File

A report on the unethical clinical study conducted at National Women's Hospital from the 1960s to the 1980s, in which women were observed rather than treated, has been published in a medical journal.

The study, overseen by Dr Herbert Green, saw patients with major cervical abnormalities followed without definitive treatment in an attempt to prove his belief these abnormalities were not a forerunner of invasive cancer.

The term "Unfortunate Experiment" was the title of a 1987 Metro magazine article which summarised some of the patients under Dr Green's care.

It led to a major inquiry led by Judge Silvia Cartwright - later Governor-General of New Zealand - in 1987 and 1988 and resulted in major consumer health reforms and the cervical screening programme.

A report, announced on Wednesday in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, describes the medical experience of 82 women with microinvasive cancer in the Dr Green study.

Previous reports have analysed the risk of invasive cancer in women with CIN3 (pre-cancer) and the consequences for women with CIN3 included in Dr Green's study.

But lead author, Professor Charlotte Paul from the University of Otago, says it is not widely known that his trial of withholding treatment also included women with microinvasive (Stage 1A) cervical cancer.

The outcome for the women with microinvasive cancer has not previously been reported.

Among these 82 women diagnosed with microinvasive cervical cancer, 15 developed a more advanced stage of cancer of the cervix, and eight died from their disease. None of these women had received conventional treatment or appropriate follow-up, Prof Paul says.

"We have reported these findings in order to document and acknowledge the harm suffered by these women and to complete the picture of the effects of Dr Green's study," she said.

Dr Green was never brought before medical disciplinary authorities because he was deemed, at 74, to be not mentally or physically fit enough to be charged. He died in 2001.

Eventually, 19 women who took legal action received compensation in an out-of-court settlement.

In 2017, the New Zealand Committee of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists apologised to the women involved in the experiment.