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Victoria: Senator wants hospital to release patient's file to Medical Practitioners' Board; fears for patients' privacy.

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Wednesday 29 June 2005

Victoria: Senator wants hospital to release patient's file to Medical Practitioners' Board; fears for patients' privacy


MARK COLVIN: In Victoria, a Supreme Court case has pitted abortion concerns against the right to privacy. 


The court has ruled that the Royal Women's Hospital in Melbourne should hand over a patient's medical file to the State's Medical Practitioners Board. 


The National Party Senator Julian McGauran has asked the board to investigate why the woman was given an abortion when she was 32 weeks pregnant. 


Senator McGauran alleges that the doctors involved may have acted illegally and unprofessionally. 


The Royal Women's Hospital has until the 22nd of July to hand over the file, or lodge an appeal. 


Lynn Bell has the story. 


LYNN BELL: Five years ago, a pregnant woman had an ultrasound in Melbourne and was told the foetus may have skeletal dysplasia, or dwarfism. 


She was referred for counselling and had a further ultrasound, but the woman threatened to commit suicide and asked for the pregnancy to be terminated. 


The woman was eight months pregnant, and doctors at the Royal Women's Hospital carried out the abortion. 


The Nationals' Senator Julian McGauran asked the Medical Practitioners Board to investigate. 


And today the Victorian Supreme Court Judge, Bill Gillard, ruled the hospital should release the woman's file to the Medical Practitioners Board to conduct the inquiry. 


Victoria's Health Services Commissioner, Beth Wilson. 


BETH WILSON: I'm really disappointed that patient privacy and confidentiality should count for so little, especially in the circumstances of this very stressful case. The issues are sensitive, the patient has been very distressed by it, as has been the doctors involved, and my major concern is that women should be able to avail themselves of lawful medical procedures in a safe setting. 


LYNN BELL: But Senator Julian McGauran says the contents of the woman's file will not be made public in a broad sense. 


JULIAN MCGAURAN: This is not a question of privacy, as so many have put. This is … the records will remain confidential with the Medical Practitioners Board. They are an independent body. They simply seek to investigate doctors and hospital. 


LYNN BELL: The Victorian Coroner allowed the court file on the abortion case to be given to Senator McGauran in 2002 and he says there are good reasons for the case to be investigated. 


JULIAN MCGAURAN: According to Victorian law, which has never been enforced, it's a dormant section within the Crimes Act, Section 10, but nevertheless sits there to be tested, and that is that any termination, after 28 weeks as it names, is deemed child destruction.  


Now that still sits on the record. It's something the Medical Practitioners Board themselves in some of their own inquiries recognise is a point of law that needs to be tested, of course, but nevertheless this is 32 weeks.  


I think it's possibly an illegal behaviour, but nevertheless, even putting that side of it to one side, there is strong suggestion and allegation of unprofessional behaviour by the doctors and the hospital, let alone unethical. 


LYNN BELL: But the Health Services Commissioner, Beth Wilson, says the Senator's complaint is politically motivated and today's outcome could erode women's confidence in the doctor-patient confidentiality. 


BETH WILSON: The law in Victoria says nothing about the length of gestation and in the circumstances of this case, in my opinion, the doctors performed a lawful operation in circumstances in which the patient was extraordinarily distressed, and I think that what they did was very compassionate. 


LYNN BELL: Senator Julian McGauran admits he is opposed to abortion but denies his complaint is political. 


JULIAN MCGAURAN: The Medical Practitioners Board has been around longer than Beth Wilson or myself investigating doctors, and we've had examples of that in the papers of late here in Victoria, let alone the Queensland example, and they have to have access to records to be able to investigate serious complaints.  


I mean, some of these go to the question of a doctor's behaviour with many, many patients, and they need that sort of access. 


This is a blocking procedure by the Royal Women's Hospital - unprecedented - that just raises suspicions that there's some sort of deep dark secret they're trying to hide. 


LYNN BELL: The Royal Women's Hospital has released a statement today, saying the Supreme Court ruled against the wishes of the patient. 


In the statement, the Hospital's Chief Executive, Dale Fisher, says she's disappointed with the decision and believes it undermines patients' rights to privacy. 


She says the hospital routinely cooperates with the Medical Practitioners Board but in this instance the woman had no complaint and did not want her records released for a complaint made by a third party. 


The Health Services Commissioner is also concerned other women may seek backyard abortions if they lose faith in hospital confidentiality.  


BETH WILSON: That's always been my fear, that if women feel that their privacy's not going to be respected, they might seek alternatives, and I'd hate to see a return to that. 


LYNN BELL: The hospital is now considering an appeal, and has until the 22nd of July to hand over the file, if it does not pursue further legal action.