A disturbing item this morning on Kathryn Ryan’s Nine To Noon programme on the Network Formerly Known As National Radio.
It concerned the Health and Disability Commissioner’s decision on the deaths of two women patients of Wellington’s Wakefield Hospital. One died five years ago, one three. The decision doesn’t seem to be on the commissioner’s website yet but according to Radio New Zealand, post-operative care by surgeons Gary Stone and Vasu Iyengar was found wanting, and Mr Stone has been referred for possible further legal action.
Ryan spoke to the bereaved husbands of the two women and couldn’t have asked for more lucid interviewees. They were articulate, intelligent and forceful. And although calm, both were clearly frustrated and dissatisfied, not just with their wives’ premature deaths (one was 54, the other 63) but with a failure of accountability, especially on the part of Wakefield Hospital. One commented that the hospital seemed to exist simply to rent space to specialists and took no responsibility for what happened to their patients.
What emerged was a picture of a system in which professional protocols and hierarchical sensitivities seemed to get in the way of patient care. According to one of the widowers, nurses at Wakefield realised his wife was deteriorating fast, but her specialist wasn’t around and it wasn’t done to ask another doctor to intervene. Rules are rules, it seems, and you can’t have a doctor interfering with someone else’s patient, even in a life-threatening situation.
Nor was it considered proper for the nurses to raise their concerns with someone higher up. Not the done thing.
This seemed to be all about guarding the autonomy of the specialist, on whom the medical system bestows a priest-like status. Turf protection, if you want to put it another way.
It has been said before that the medical profession operates a tight, closed shop with rigidly observed demarcation lines that would be the envy of old-school trade unions. We have seen this manifested in other ways in the past, as when Southland eye specialists joined together to repel a cut-price interloper from Australia. In the instances of the two Wakefield patients, the same sort of professional mindset produced a tragic outcome.
The chief executive of Wakefield Hospital said he couldn’t appear on the programme (now there’s a surprise), but Ryan read a supplied statement that sounded as if it came from the standard damage-control manual that all PR consultants keep in their top drawers.
Health and Disability Commissioner Ron Paterson did appear, however, and not for the first time he impressed as a public servant who answers questions bluntly and unequivocally in plain English. How such a man fluked a top job in health remains a mystery.
Full marks to Ryan, too, for exposing the story. Nine To Noon does a consistently good job of exploring issues that slip under the radar of the print media and television.