(Image via hpara.org.au)

Dr Don Kane discusses ongoing and deeply entrenched bullying within Australia's medical profession and the case of talented orthopaedic surgeon Dr Emery.

THIS IS THE saga of how a region of Australia with a population of more than 750,000 was denied the services of a highly skilled health professional.

It is an example of what has been happening not only in North Queensland but nationally, in all sectors of health service provision.

Almost every health service profession sector, such as allied health, nursing, medical officers, dental practitioners and a host of other professions has been affected.

The nation is losing the services of many good providers in health and it is usually the better ones who are targeted. Some, such as neurosurgeon Dr Charlie Teo, survive attempts to smear their reputation but too many do not. The personal costs to the victims is immense and includes damage to reputation, loss of career, personal and marital stress and breakdown with family disruption, financial difficulties and sadly, in some cases, suicide. 

The ultimate losers apart from the victims and their families is the community.

The tragedy is that various organisations which should be ensuring that these activities do not happen are not functioning as they should to protect the victims of this persecution and the community. The system is sick and the malady is the result of the following:

  • Misuse of the regulator with vexatious complaints often in the guise of being “in the public interest”, when the mandatory notification provision is abused for commercial and, or, personal reasons.
  • Health service maladministration.
  • Inadequacies in the efforts of organisations such as the professional colleges, the AMA and other professional bodies to ensure ethical and professional standards are met.
  • The perpetrators of abuse gaining positions of influence in administration, the colleges and other organisations and the political arena.
  • Deficiencies in the performance of indemnity providers and their legal representation for victims that allows the maladministration of the regulator and administration to ride roughshod and unchecked over individuals rights.

The saga

Dr Richard Emery is a highly skilled Orthopaedic Spinal Surgeon who emigrated from France, married an Australian and has a family of two young sons. He gained admission to the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons by examination to add to his French qualifications. Dr Emery settled in Townsville after working in spinal units in Sydney and then Brisbane. He became the Asia-Pacific regional education officer for the Orthopaedic Spinal Association and conducted training sessions in spinal surgery in the region. This included invitations to conduct sessions in China.

Richard worked as a staff specialist at Townsville Hospital for three years until he was forced to resign by being excluded from performing spinal surgery, which included stabilisation of spinal trauma patients before their transfer to the spinal unit at Princess Alexandria Hospital in Brisbane. He moved to private practice in Townsville and included Cairns in this, so that he was providing services in North Queensland. His practice was very successful as his reputation became known throughout the region.

Dr Emery was then targeted by a group of  “colleagues” in Townsville and Cairns. They lodged notifications to the Australian Health Professional Regulation Agency (AHPRA) in the guise of mandatory notifications. They did not discuss this action with Dr Emery before doing so.

AHPRA then placed restrictions on his registration without adequately investigating the truth of the allegations. This group was eventually responsible for Dr Emery having to withdraw from the Townsville Mater Hospital and Cairns Private Hospital. He was so disturbed by what had occurred that he contemplated ending his life but was rescued by his wife. The family returned to France where they were welcomed by colleagues and the community. He was granted registration in France and now has a busy practice there.

The director of medical services at the Townsville Mater Hospital suffered collateral damage from his efforts to protect the interests of Dr Emery and the North Queensland community. He was targeted and notified to AHPRA because of his support for Dr Emery, cleared by AHPRA but no action was taken against the perpetrator of the unfounded complaint. The failure of the Townsville Mater Hospital administration to support Dr Emery and their director of medical services, also caused the resignation of the director.

Dr Emery has finally been been cleared of all allegations made to AHPRA. This took two years and one month during which AHPRA placed severe restrictions on his practice, accepted a cascade of notifications after the initial nineteen lodged and refused his request for removal of the conditions, when he was departing Australia to return to France.

The medical indemnity organisation to which Dr Emery subscribed, at great cost, in the belief that it would defend him against false accusations, failed to do so. He was denied due process, natural justice and the presumption of innocence.

AHPRA released its decision in regard to the notifications of Dr Richard Emery on 26 April 2016 — two years and a month after receiving them. He was exonerated on all the notifications that had been lodged over a period of time. The decision includes several statements that expose those who lodged the notifications as having behaved improperly.

These strengthen the Health Professionals Australia Reform Association (HPARA) view that the notifications were vexatious. It begs the question as to what AHPRA will do to address this misuse of the notification process.

The sad irony is that the document detailing the decision in this case, is prefaced by an apology to Dr Emery by the AHPRA Case Manager. This is in no way a comfort to Dr Emery and his family who have suffered enormous stress, destruction of his practice in North Queensland, severe financial loss and the necessity for him, his Australian wife and their children to forsake a lifetime in Australia and North Queensland serving that community. As well, a community has been stripped of a high quality spinal surgery service that will be very difficult, if not impossible, to replace.

 

For more information on the Health Professionals Australia Reform Association (HPARA) visit the website here.

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