Several types of cancer surgery have been suspended at Maidstone Hospital in Kent after five patients died from ‘potentially avoidable’ complications having been treated with a new type of keyhole surgery.

Keyhole operations on upper gastrointestinal (GI) cancer patients, including those suffering from stomach, oesophagus, liver and pancreas cancers, have been halted at the hospital for up to 12 months after an investigation by the Royal College of Surgeons.

The widow of one of the patients said that her husband was made to feel like “human guinea pig” as he underwent the new surgery technique. The 51-year-old was coaxed into having the keyhole procedure instead of conventional open surgery owing to its shorter recovery period. His operation was also broadcast live to a medical conference.

An internal review found that four other patients may have died owing to ‘potentially avoidable’ complications linked to the new technique.

Although no members of staff are currently being investigated, the matter has been referred to the General Medical Council. Patients currently requiring upper GI surgery are being transferred to St Thomas’ Hospital in London until all necessary improvements have been made.

Linda Millband, National Practice Lead for clinical negligence at Thompsons Solicitors, said: “It is vital that patients have confidence not only in the hospital carrying out the procedure, but also in the procedure itself. It appears that these patients had the option of recognised, conventional surgery but were persuaded into having a novel and ultimately unreliable procedure by medical professionals they should have been able to trust. It appears that this decision cost some of them their lives.

“Serious questions need to be asked about the procedure but also about what the surgeons themselves were doing performing these operations. A clear and thorough investigation is needed into how patients’ trust was allowed to be abused in this way.”