Bullying allegations against Monash Medical Centre senior surgeon upheld

    Dr Imogen Ibbett 


Bullying allegations against a senior Melbourne neurosurgeon have been upheld following a formal investigation by the Board of Neurosurgery — a joint board of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and the Neurosurgical Society of Australasia.

The board reached its conclusions following an ABC Four Corners report in May in which Dr Imogen Ibbett, a former neurosurgical trainee at Monash Medical Centre, spoke out for the first time about her own experience.

The surgeon at the centre of the allegations is Dr Helen Maroulis, who until June was a senior member of the team at Monash Medical Centre’s neurosurgical unit.

Dr Ibbett, who trained under Dr Maroulis, revealed details of how she said she was bullied on the program.

“She was awful to me … you know, just constantly being made to feel that I wasn’t good enough, constantly being made to feel that I was missing things, that I was lazy, that I was stupid,” she said.

“And that was really exactly how she said it as well. I remember days when I would just go home and cry, just sit in a dark room and just cry.

“And we’re so vulnerable anyway when we’re at that junior stage in our career, and really all the way through our training we’re very, very vulnerable.”

Three weeks after the allegations were made public, Dr Maroulis parted company with Monash.

The Board of Neurosurgery undertook a formal investigation, and a committee of three senior neurosurgeons was appointed to hear evidence from consultants and former registrars at Monash, including Dr Ibbett.

In July the board made its findings, which are only now being revealed.

Four Corners has obtained a copy of the summary report into the investigation.

The report makes it clear that the panel reviewing the matter considered the evidence of bullying by Dr Maroulis to be so serious that it felt justified in removing Monash Medical Centre’s accreditation to train neurosurgeons, judging that the unit had at one time been unsafe for trainees.

However, this option was not proceeded with, following Dr Maroulis’ departure from Monash Medical Centre, and following assurances from Monash that new procedures were being brought in to prevent this type of behaviour happening again.

In reference to Dr Maroulis (the respondent), the summary report states that the board accepted the committee conclusion that the investigation revealed adequate evidence to reasonably conclude that trainees were subjected to:

  • Unreasonable and unjustified criticism by the respondent on a frequent basis while at the training unit
  • Verbal abuse, shouting, threats and intimidation by the respondent on a frequent basis while at the training unit
  • Undermining feedback

The investigation was also highly critical of Monash Health and its response to the allegations of bullying by Dr Maroulis — and in particular, an earlier internal investigation by Monash Health which had found the allegations of bullying to be not substantiated. The Board said:

  • The investigation revealed Monash Health had in place appropriate written policies relating to allegations of intimidation, harassment or abuse of trainees but the existence of policies did not lead to the allegations being addressed in a timely manner
  • On the evidence, the training environment was not free from behaviour which may reasonably create a health and safety risk to trainees

Based on these conclusions, the board agreed that “disaccreditation of Monash Health was warranted”.

Training accreditation not removed

However, the board decided not to remove Monash’s accreditation to train neurosurgeons after taking into account additional information, “including changes in staffing at Monash Health”.

The Board of Neurosurgery has only approved the continued accreditation of Monash Health subject to its “compliance with the following conditions to the satisfaction of the Board”:

  • Monash Health document a departmental process for dealing with informal complaints within department (sic), focusing on early intervention of potential bullying and harassment behaviours
  • Monash Health provide the board with an analysis of the failings in the bullying and harassment investigation conducted by the Human Resources Department … and confirmation of the steps taken to ensure the failings have been addressed
  • Monash Health be physically inspected by the board in late 2015 to ensure the issues have been addressed, there is an appropriate departmental governance structure and the culture within the training unit is one of early intervention with regard to potential issues

In deciding not to strip Monash Health of its training accreditation, the board took into account the evidence given by registrars, praising the training they were given by other neurosurgeons in the unit.

Dr Ibbett, who worked at Monash Medical Centre from 2011 until 2013, told Four Corners: “Overall I had a very positive experience at Monash, and I found most of the surgeons there to be extremely supportive and excellent surgeons as well as educators.

“But certainly a predominant theme was bullying from one of the female surgeons there, and really just a sort of constant feeling of fear, whilst working there when she was around at work.”

Monash Health has now apologised to Dr Ibbett for the way she was treated. But it would not confirm whether Dr Maroulis resigned from her job or was sacked.

“Dr Helen Maroulis is no longer employed by Monash Health. Due to the fact that this matter is before the courts, we are unable to comment publicly,” the statement said.

Dr Maroulis has lodged a complaint with Fair Work Australia, under the general protections provisions of the Fair Work Act, arguing that she herself was bullied and discriminated against at Monash.

The matter was dealt with in August, but not resolved.

When approached by the ABC on Thursday, Dr Maroulis declined to comment