May 28, 2024

Mind your ethics, Doc, says health minister

Doctors should not take their high ethical standing for granted, the Australian health minister has warned in a scathing address. Tony Abbott said that doctors’ groups should be as zealous about protecting their profession’s honour as they are about protecting their incomes. He mooted the creation of a national watchdog to oversee medical ethics and to guard the standing of the profession.

Abbott’s words may have touched a raw nerve because Australian doctors have taken a battering in recent days. In one incident, a newspaper revealed that confidential medical records were being sold to a marketing company with links to the pharmaceutical industry. About 200 GPs had already signed up for gift vouchers or A$150 in cash in return for handing over de-identified medical records. Although the Australian Privacy Commissioner had approved the procedure, this appears to contradict advice which it had given to the government last year that de-identified information could not guarantee anonymity.

And in a lurid saga of medical negligence which has made international headlines, the Queensland state government has launched an inquiry into scores of deaths at the hands of an incompetent surgeon. Indian-trained Dr Jayant Patel operated on 867 patients in the country town of Bundaberg between 2003 and 2005. Amongst the 87 who died, some appear to be victims of gross incompetence. The government now fears that hundreds more may have been injured by the man Australian newspapers have dubbed “Dr Death”.

Dr Patel came to Australia from the US, where he had been banned from practising in New York and found guilty of gross negligence in Oregon. Working in a country hospital with a tight budget, a shortage of hospital beds and a scarcity of doctors, he managed to bluff his way through. Somehow his atrocious record was overlooked by hospital management and he stifled complaints from staff with a combination of bullying and apparent productivity. In January some of his doctor colleagues even wrote a letter expressing their regret that he might leave.

The scandal finally broke when a Queensland MP raised the issue in Parliament. It was too late, though, to catch Dr Patel. He had left Australia on a flight paid for by the government. In his pocket was a glowing letter of thanks from the hospital’s director of medical services. His current whereabouts are unknown.