Jeremy Hunt was accused of misleading the public about hospital deaths in a bid to ruin Labour's reputation on the NHS today.
Doctors accused the health secretary of making "political capital" out of patient deaths after briefings on the Keogh report into failures at 14 hospitals focused on 13,000 avoidable deaths despite the report discouraging that view.
"Media reports last weekend said 13,000 patients had died avoidably," said Peter Carter, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing.
"But when Bruce Keogh's report came out, he said nothing of the sort. Patients using these hospitals have been worried unnecessarily.
"Whoever briefed the media on that has been highly irresponsible. My worry is that erroneous 13,000 figure will stick because many people remember headlines, not facts."
Paul Flynn, chair of the British Medical Association's consultants committee, said: "Although we need to find urgent solutions to these problems, kneejerk reactions are not going to be helpful.
"Short-term political gain only ignores the wider long-term challenges facing the NHS, and further risks patient safety."
A spokesman for the association added: "It is reckless to try to make political capital out of patients' deaths."
Hunt was keen to pin the blame for the failings onto Labour during an emotive, highly-charged debate in the Commons yesterday.
He blamed the previous Labour government of covering up poor care reports by leaning on the Care Quality Commission to suppress the findings.
He also branded the report Labour's "darkest moment" – a line eagerly taken up by some tabloids, not least the Daily Mail, which led with the headline "Labour's day of shame".
Parliamentary observers believe Hunt is trying to damage Labour's reputation as the 'party of the NHS', which is still considered the Tories' Achilles heel.
Keogh's report found none of the 14 hospitals investigated provided "consistently high-quality care to patients".
But the report stopped well short of discovering a 'Mid Staffs waiting to happen' and specifically ruled out the use of avoidable deaths statistics.
"However tempting it may be, it is clinically meaningless and academically reckless to use such statistical measures to quantify actual numbers of avoidable deaths," the report found.