Hospital missed warning on Nair
The state government will legislate to improve the transparency of health complaints in response to the case of Suresh Nair – a neurosurgeon who was allowed to continue performing operations even though authorities knew he was a cocaine addict.
The overhaul, ordered by Health Minister Jillian Skinner, follows a joint Fairfax/Four Corners investigation into how health regulators dealt with Nair and the treatment of patients who suffered botched operations at his hand.
In June, Fairfax Media published revelations regarding Nair, a neurosurgeon at Nepean Hospital, who was allowed to perform complex surgery on hundreds of patients over a five-year period despite the Medical Council of NSW and the Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC) being fully aware of his chronic, ongoing cocaine addiction.
Mrs Skinner said the government would be introducing changes to legislation that will allow employers in the health system “to know about conditions that have been imposed on practitioners as a result of impairment”.
This reform will make it mandatory for any organisation employing health professional to be fully informed of any past impairment – such as drug addiction – which might affect their performance.
In Nair’s case, health authorities were aware of his “severe impairment” as early as 2004 but the HCCC only stripped him of his licence in 2010 – after police arrested him and laid criminal charges following the death of escort Suellen Domingues Zaupa in Nair’s home from a drug overdose. She was the second female escort to fatally overdose in his company.
Mrs Skinner also revealed that the HCCC, the NSW Medical Council and other health professional councils will be required “to inform complainants about the outcome of their complaints”.
This will prevent a repeat of the treatment received by Carla Downes who still suffers from a botched operation by Nair but was refused access to the findings of an HCCC investigation following a complaint about her treatment. This was because Nair chose not to fight the charges of negligence due to be brought against him.
A Fairfax investigation previously revealed that 10 days after Nair performed the surgery on Mrs Downes, he spent $19,640 on an 11-hour cocaine and sex “party pack” inside Sydney brothel Liaisons.
Mrs Downes is one of hundreds of patients in NSW who lodge complaints but are left in limbo because of red tape.
Despite Mrs Skinner’s announcement concerns remain about shortcomings in health regulations exposed by Nair’s case. At present, medical practitioners are only obliged to inform health authorities of personal police related issues if they have been charged or convicted of a crime.
In turn, police are not obliged to notify hospitals of doctors who have fallen under their radar. And on the occasions when police do feel the need to raise the alarm about a particular doctor, hospitals are not required to forward that advice to the Medical Council of NSW.
So when, in February 2009, detectives made an official visit to Nepean public hospital and expressed “concerns” about Nair’s “addiction” to cocaine and involvement in the fatal overdose of sex worker Victoria McIntyre, its management did nothing – even though the Medical Council had previously suspended the neurosurgeon over his “dependency” to the drug.
When asked on tonight’s Four Corner’s program whether that police information was “significant” in the context of Nair’s prior history, Nepean Blue Mountains Local Health District chief executive Kay Hyman said: “It certainly is a significant issue and for Victoria McIntyre it was obviously, you know, a fatal issue … but … he wasn’t at work, there was nothing more that the hospital did at that time.”
Chairman of the Medical Council’s NSW Committee, Dr Choong Siew Yong, describes that decision as “very regrettable” and believes Nair would have been the subject of an “immediate action hearing” and likely suspension, had it been forwarded.
The Hand That Holds The Scalpel airs on Monday on ABC1 at 8.30pm.
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