Disciplinary actions are a rigged game for doctors
Opinion / 19 October 2019, 11:43am / WILLIAM SAUNDERSON-MEYER
Most miscarriages of justice are not the fault of the courts. If you work for the public service or a corporate entity, it’s very easy to fall foul of the petty tyrants of what is laughably called the “human resources” department.
A recent example of how wrong things can go with internal disciplinary processes is the chilling tale of the three young Tygerberg doctors who were variously given final warnings, suspended and fired for “stealing” two broken armchairs.
The sanctions imposed on the Tygerberg three would effectively have ended their medical careers. They were, however, fortunate in that although their initial internal appeal had been dismissed, the case became a cause cé* èbre because of the grossly disproportionate punishments.
The Western Cape Health Department (WCHD) backed off the moment it was caught in the public spotlight. A saga that had dragged on for more than a year was resolved in two days, with a hasty WCHD climbdown.
The administrative bodies that oversee the health sector seem particularly afflicted with incomprehensible inconsistencies. Compare the harsh treatment meted out to the Tygerberg doctors with another WCHD employee, Dr Srinivasan Govender.
Found guilty by the Health Professions Council (HPCSA) of disgraceful conduct, Govender was last month handed a five-year ban from practising as a doctor, entirely suspended. He was also banned from working in a state hospital for four years.
Govender had admitted to sexually assaulting a colleague, a nurse, after giving her the drug ketamine to “enhance her mood”. A labour court judge found that the nurse had “no capacity to give informed consent to any act in respect of her body”.
Initially, WCHD’s disciplinary hearing had handed Govender a slap on the wrist. It was only after Health MEC Nomafrench Mbombo, to her credit, challenged the finding of her own department in the Labour Court, that he was fired. But embarrassingly, three months later, Govender was discovered by the assaulted nurse to be working in various other WCHD hospitals as a locum.
The DA-run WCHD likes to keep its operations murky. For months now, it has stalled my requests for access to the record of both the Govender and Tygerberg hearings, insisting that these are not available for public scrutiny.
It has also, as yet, failed to produce a promised list of the past year’s disciplinary actions under its aegis, simply detailing the charge, the finding and the sanction. This is called transparent governance, something the DA is very keen that ANC-run entities should be compelled to implement.
The sins of the WCHD, however, probably pale in comparison to those of the HPCSA.
The HPCSA is at present engaged in its very own, drawn-out, feud with Dr Jacques de Vos, who has for two-and-a-half years been unable to complete his internship because he faces an unresolved charge of unprofessional conduct.
De Vos was charged in 2017, while doing his gynaecology rotation, because he tried to convince a patient not to undergo an abortion, citing religious prohibitions. Why this particular incident ended up with a draconian disciplinary sanction is not clear.
Even less clear is why the HPCSA has serially brought charges, dropped them, then reinstated them, creating havoc with De Vos’s training.
Or why the HPCSA can’t produce a formal letter of complaint or statement by the aggrieved woman.
The level at which the professional failures of doctors will be addressed also appears to be the luck of the draw.
Earlier this year, the Gauteng High Court upheld a five-year jail sentence for gynaecologist Dr Danie van der Walt, found guilty of culpable homicide after a woman’s death during a complicated delivery.
Compare this with Dr David Sello, whose gruesome butchery of patients was exposed by eNCA in a television programme, after which the HPCSA found him guilty of 26 charges of gross misconduct, including causing the deaths of three patients, and took away his licence.
Sello, however, unlike Van Der Walt, has never been charged with any criminal offence.
Life may be a lottery, but medical practice is worse. It’s a rigged game.
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