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Monday, 30 May 2005
Page: 57

Mr NEVILLE (4:18 PM) —As a former member of the Bundaberg Base Hospital board, I am appalled at the current crisis which is engulfing the hospital. I might add that I have not been a member of that board since 1989-90. Every day, the Morris inquiry into the deaths at Bundaberg Base Hospital is revealing details of scandalous administrative practices and cover-ups in that hospital. Sadly, it is the vulnerable patients and dedicated medical and nursing staff who have borne the brunt of this neglect and obfuscation rather than those who were charged with the patients’ welfare. It is now up to the Morris royal commission to find the truth of the situation and to provide some measure of comfort to those who have been traumatised by the callous and cavalier attitude of a handful of individuals. I believe one of the driving forces behind the situation is the overly bureaucratic culture which has been allowed to flourish in Queensland Health. Bureaucracy, if left unchecked, is self-perpetuating, self-interested and ultimately self-destructive.

The mud-slinging began in earnest on 22 March, when the National Party member for Burnett, Rob Messenger, raised the issue of surgical ineptitude and incompetence at the Bundaberg Base Hospital. He raised it in Queensland parliament. He was howled down by the AMAQ, the Beattie government, the local health council and some sections of the media. The day after he raised the concerns of the nursing staff at the base hospital in parliament, the AMAQ put out a press release slamming his actions which said in part that the Queensland opposition had acted in an ‘irresponsible and unjust manner’ by airing its concerns. The AMAQ president, Dr Molloy, went on to say:

The media furore surrounding the Patel case has forced him to resign from his position, leaving the Bundaberg Hospital without a surgeon.

Dr Molloy also praised Dr Patel by saying he had spent many years training and practising in the US and had not had the opportunity to respond to Mr Messenger’s allegations. Nor, might I add, had Dr Molloy checked with Mr Messenger on Mr Messenger’s statement or on what was actually said by the nursing staff about this medical ineptitude.

I am quite emotional about this issue because of its effect on the whole community of Bundaberg. But it was not Rob Messenger’s doing that this thing happened; it was the attitude that prevailed there—a long history of obfuscation and of politicisation of hospital access. Members of the opposition, for example, were at various times excluded from being able to visit the hospital. There were complaints—and I might add ‘unheard complaints’—from the nursing staff and the victims. Where would you expect Rob Messenger to go? Isn’t that the very instance in which a member of parliament would use parliamentary privilege, or should he have shut up, gone through the regular channels and let Dr Patel carry out more operations?

We know at this stage that 87 operations resulted in death or some major negative outcome. A figure of 87 is almost unheard of in Australia, yet the member of parliament who exposed it was being labelled by his state colleagues and by the AMA. It was a shocking business. Mr Messenger is the one who has every right to be outraged now. As late as 8 April, Queensland Health Minister Gordon Nuttall, in trying to duckshove the issue by blaming Mr Messenger in the media, said:

Can we put an official report out relating to the allegations? The answer is no. There’s no point in it continuing. There cannot be a report based on the lack of natural justice—

He means the justice that Patel received. In the article, the health minister also blamed Mr Messenger for Dr Patel’s resignation and for the report being disbanded prematurely. The state member for Bundaberg blamed Mr Messenger for Dr Patel fleeing the country. She said as much when, on 9 April in the Bundaberg News Mail, she wrote:

... as a direct result of the Member for Burnett’s prolonged and vicious attacks, this surgeon has left our hospital.

‘Praise be to the Lord,’ I say. What utter cant and hypocrisy from both members of parliament. Patel did flee the country, but not because of anything Mr Messenger did—other than to expose Dr Patel. Dr Patel flew out on a $3,500 business class, one-way flight, paid for by the Queensland government, no less. They were complicit in his leaving Australia. They aided and abetted this man. What cant and hypocrisy. The government tried to blacken a member of parliament’s name when they were party to this situation. It is almost unbelievable.

The Bundaberg District Health Council also let down the local community badly, if the report in the media is correct. Chairman Viv Chase sent a letter of support to Dr Patel four days after he fled the country, saying in part:

... on behalf of the District Health Council to offer our support and to advise that we are deeply saddened and appalled by the disclosure in parliament which has subsequently led to your decision to leave Bundaberg.

Sadly, this statement is a reflection of the response of those who were instrumental in the hiring and in the oversight of Dr Patel. I ask: did Mr Chase write this letter voluntarily? Did he do it under pressure? Did he compose it or did someone compose it for him? Did his fellow members of the health council endorse it? I suspect not.

I also find this abandoned, so-called report into Bundaberg Base Hospital interesting because, according to the AMAQ, the Queensland Medical Board was looking at the ‘scope of surgery being completed in a country centre’—not Dr Patel’s surgical track record. If that was the case, the report might never have uncovered Dr Patel’s modus operandi and he might still be operating today—with in excess of 87 negative outcomes.

One of the other incidents that staggered me about this matter was the action of my colleague and state Labor member for Bundaberg, Nita Cunningham, at the first major public meeting of the victims and their families. She had publicly criticised the member for Burnett for raising the matter in parliament. She ostensibly blamed him, along with the health minister, for losing Dr Patel. Instead of listening to the victims of Dr Patel, she used the meeting to laud the virtues of an internal inquiry. She also made the extraordinary claim that this situation was the fault of the federal government for not having trained enough Australian doctors. At this point, the meeting erupted with disbelief, and many called on her to leave the microphone. It is the only time that I have been at a public meeting when a member of parliament has been publicly booed.

This quagmire of cover-ups, intimidation and ineptitude did not just happen overnight. It grew from an overly bureaucratic and top-heavy system of administration. I find it incongruous that just a matter of days before the member for Burnett blew the whistle, the AMAQ president said:

The problem (with Queensland’s health system) is that the Government doesn’t seem concerned and has continued to patch the holes with administrators with clipboards, leaving massive gaps in patient care.

Queensland Health’s own annual report backs up this statement, showing a 75 per cent increase in the number of administrators employed in the health sector in the past five years. Just note that: 75 per cent more administrators when our hospitals were screaming out for doctors and nursing staff. I hope the royal commission can do its job.

My call tonight is for a return in Queensland to the system of hospital boards—not just picked by the government and not just advisory boards. They should be proper statutory boards with the power to hire and fire, as they did in the old days. (Time expired).