Government’s plan to probe under-dosing in NSW hospitals unrealistic: Doctor

The under-dosing of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment at three Sydney hospitals is not systemic and more likely the actions of a few “rogue elements”, the Australian Medical Association says.

Key points:

  • Government wants to review treatment of cancer patients over last five years
  • President of peak doctor’s group says plan is ‘unworkable’
  • Lobby group calls for royal commission, police to investigate matter

But the NSW president of the peak doctors group, Professor Brad Frankum, has conceded he cannot rule out that it is more widespread than that.

The scandal involving a doctor mistreating more than 100 patients at St Vincent’s hospital widened yesterday, after it was revealed a second oncologist had given incorrect doses to at least three patients at Sutherland and St George Hospitals.

The NSW Government says it will review the treatment given to every cancer patient in the public hospital system over the past five years.

Professor Frankum said that was unworkable and questioned the necessity.

“I don’t think this means there is system-wide problem and these practices are occurring everywhere, but it’s fair to say we don’t know that for sure,” he told the ABC.

“I hope it’s just a few rogue elements in the system. I think we have picked up on some isolated incidents. I cannot be 100 per cent sure there aren’t other incidents, but I don’t think it’s a systemic problem.”

Professor Frankum questioned the Government’s decision to review the treatment received by cancer patients, saying it was onerous and unworkable.

“I don’t think that’s realistic,” he said.

“I think that would require so many resources that it might detract from caring for people in the system right now.

“That sort of auditing and monitoring can be done in a systematic way without promising to review every patient’s record.

“As far as I can say that really couldn’t occur so that seems like an ambit claim that’s not going to occur to me.”

Professor Frankum said there needed to be an overhaul so there was electronic prescribing of treatments throughout the hospital system, not just for chemotherapy patients, which the State Government yesterday promised to introduce.

“At the moment we have the potential for error because in all of the speciality areas, dangerous drugs are prescribed all of the time and we’re handwriting scripts sometimes by inexperienced people,” he said.

“If we had a better information technology system provided by NSW Health that could go someway to improving patient safety.

“If anything, this should give us pause for thought about how we prescribe medicines, not just in oncology but more generally and we should be using modern technology to help us with that.”

‘Treatment not illness killing patients’

A group lobbying for patients who have suffered mistreatment in the health system, said it wanted a royal commission and the police to investigate the latest hospital scandals.

Lorraine Long from the Medical Error Action group said the health system should not be investigating itself.

“The state of it is not acceptable as it is,” she told the ABC.

“Far too many people are being injured and far too many people are being killed and it’s due to their treatment and not their illness or their disease.”

She said she wrote to NSW Health Minister Jillian Skinner in May last year to alert her to the under-dosing of chemotherapy patients at St Vincent’s hospital, but received no response.

The Health Minister was questioned about it in Parliament and denied knowing about the letter, saying she became aware of it only in February this year.

“I became aware of the chemotherapy under-dosing when it was exposed in the media in February for the first time,” she told the Parliament in Question Time.

She said she then initiated an independent review, with the final report released yesterday.

“That was the first I had heard about it, I know there are counter claims but they’re wrong,” she said.

‘It’s beyond heartbreaking’

Lorraine Long said she found the Minister’s account “astounding” and told the ABC she did not believe her.

“I always give people the benefit of the doubt but she’s not telling the truth,” she said.

She said patients and families of patients who have died and whose cases are to be reviewed will be “absolutely gutted” and “enraged”.

“It’s terrible when you find out you’ve lost someone in the family and it’s due to medical negligence,” she said.

“It’s beyond heartbreaking. It’s just totally unacceptable that we have a runaway hospital and medical system that is unaccountable for their actions.”

But she said if there was to be a review, it should not be limited to public cancer patients but should be widened to also include the patients who were treated in the private system.