London doctor suspended for six months for falling asleep during operation

Dr Thomas Herbst fell asleep in an operating theatre (file picture) ((Alamy/PA))
Dr Thomas Herbst fell asleep in an operating theatre (file picture) ((Alamy/PA))

A London anaesthetist has been suspended for six months for falling asleep in an operating theatre during surgery.

Dr Thomas Herbst, a consultant anaesthetist, is said to have fallen into a “deep sleep” after anaesthetising a patient during a shoulder arthroscopy procedure on September 27, 2022 at South West London Elective Orthopaedic Centre.

A Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS) hearing was told that Dr Herbst, 61, only woke up after being tapped on the shoulder by another anaesthetist, named Dr A.

Dr A told the hearing: “I was working in another theatre when a nurse from Dr Herbst’s theatre asked me to come and speak with him to see if the anaesthetised patient was okay.

‘‘Whilst doing so, I found Dr Herbst asleep. When I called his name I did not receive a verbal response and I said: ‘Dr can you hear me – open your eyes’ in an attempt to wake him.

“He was in a deep sleep and he only woke up after I repeatedly tapped him on his shoulder.”

A theatre support assistant, named as Ms B, said she had seen Dr Herbst asleep next to the anaesthetist machine while the surgeon was “putting ‘knife to skin’”.

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After waking up, the tribunal heard that Dr Herbst was “speaking incoherently” and “unable to complete his sentences”.

Shortly after the incident, Dr Herbst sent an email to his responsible officer, a doctor who monitors colleagues on behalf of the General Medical Council (GMC), explaining that he was “rather tired after spending most of the night doing my tax return”.

Dr Herbst, from East Sheen, told the tribunal that he had been “unwell” on the morning of the procedure and that “in hindsight" should not have attended work, but only did so as he "did not want patients to have their operation cancelled”.

“Dr Herbst stated that if everyone decided to not go to work because they were feeling a little unwell, then no work would ever get done,” the tribunal heard.

He apologised for “having been sleepy” but said that he was “unsure” whether he was asleep. He accepted that he may have closed his eyes, been daydreaming or “slightly snoozing”.

In his evidence, he said that NHS workers used to be applauded for going into work but accused the GMC of attempting to “prosecute him in a horrible way”. He claimed that he “became ill probably through working in a hospital”.

Dr Herbst did not dispute the “majority of the evidence” given by witnesses to the tribunal, but said that “humans get sick”.

Claire Lindley, the MPTS chairman, said: “The tribunal found Dr Herbst had fallen asleep in theatre and could not easily be roused, and that shortly thereafter he was speaking incoherently.

“At the time of this incident, Dr Herbst was subject to a warning from the GMC for similar conduct.

‘‘The tribunal noted the patient was potentially at risk and his poor responses after he was awoken, posed a potential further risk to patients had he continued with the theatre list.”

Dr Herbst had also given a warning for similar conduct in 2022 over an incident that occurred two years prior, the tribunal was told.

The MPTS found Dr Herbst guilty of misconduct and suspended him from practicing for six months.

He will face a review hearing later in the year.