A nurse whose registration was suspended for three years after he formed a long term sexual relationship with a vulnerable patient has had his suspension rduced to 18 months.
Michael Roberts, who now lives in Britain, appealed to the High Court against the maximum three-year suspension imposed in May by the New Zealand Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal. The tribunal found Roberts guilty of professional misconduct.
In a reserved decision published today, Justice Collins said he was concerned the tribunal did not properly consider Roberts' rehabilitation, or impose a suspension penalty reasonably comparable to other similar incidents.
Roberts had been working at Dunedin Hospital as a registered nurse on the ward where the 32-year-old woman he formed a relationship with was admitted in December 2007.
She had a neurological condition called myasthenia gravis that affected her muscles.
Symptoms included double vision, droopy eyes, facial paralysis, slurred speech, swallowing difficulties, and an inability to hold her head and arms up properly.
"She thought she looked horrendous and that no one would ever want to be in a relationship with someone who looked so sick," Justice Collins said.
She had described herself as "being extremely vulnerable at the time".
During the woman's stay, Roberts handed her a piece of paper with his first name and cellphone number written on it. When he did so, he said "this is highly unprofessional".
Later the woman sent Roberts a text message, and they began exchanging text messages while the woman was still in hospital.
Two days after the woman was discharged from hospital, Roberts visited her at home, and sexual intercourse took place, the judge said.
The relationship continued until November 2010, with the two living together during the last 12 months of the period.
It ended when Roberts unexpectedly left. Issues arose over money and items Roberts had taken from the woman, with Roberts granted a discharge without conviction on a theft charge.
Justice Collins said the relationship between Roberts and the woman appeared to have been genuine and loving, lasting close to three years.
It did not appear to have been a case of predatory behaviour, although it was a matter of concern that sexual intercourse happened two days after the woman was discharged from hospital.
The nature of the therapeutic relationship between the woman and Roberts was not particularly extensive, the judge said.
In reducing the length of Roberts' suspension, he said it was difficult to conclude why a longer time would be needed for Roberts to complete appropriate training programmes in Britain.
Those programmes were designed to ensure Roberts fully understood professional boundaries and the need to avoid engaging in any form of personal relationship with patients.