Grieving parents angered by doctors' secrecy

IAN STEWARD
Last updated 10:29 16/12/2012

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Parents of a young medical student who died of meningitis are fighting to publicly name the medical professionals involved in the errors that led to their son's death.

Fourth-year medical student Zachary Gravatt, 22, died of meningococcal disease in Auckland City Hospital in July 2009.

Coroner Brandt Shortland released findings in November 2011 that criticised the length of time it took for Gravatt to be seen by a doctor - his meningitis was not diagnosed for more than four hours - but eventually ruled it was a systemic failure rather than the fault of any one person.

The coroner ordered the suppression of five names of medical professionals who had been involved in Gravatt's care, even though they were found not to be at fault.

The exclusion of the names rankled Lance and Jenny Gravatt, who took the case to the High Court last week.

"It seemed just plain wrong to us that if you are a healthcare professional you are almost 100 per cent guaranteed that you'd be given name suppression," Lance Gravatt said.

"We couldn't think of any other group in society that has that privilege.

"It's about people having the dignity to say ‘I was part of the system'."

The Gravatts paid for the judicial review of the coroner's decision and retained Auckland QC Grant Illingworth.

Illingworth argued the coroner's decision did not fall into the realm of any of the four categories specified for suppression in the Coroners Act - justice, decency, public order, or personal privacy.

He argued that although the health professionals involved had personal privacy interests, their role in a public hospital was just that, public, and could not be protected by claims of privacy when they interacted with the public.

"Because a person's reputation may be affected is not enough."

He said the coroner had been wrong in saying the suppressions relied especially on the ground of public order.

"I don't see how releasing the names could result in rioting in the streets or anything of that type."

The Gravatts face an uphill battle, however. Coroners are given discretion on whether to impose name suppression and the onus appears to be on not alienating the medical professionals so commonly called on by the coronial system.

Lawyer for the Auckland District Health Board, Anna Adams, told the court the coronial system was not about determining culpability.

Sometimes it was found that it was the system that failed rather than any one individual, as in the Gravatt case, but "there is a considerable risk that publication of the health professionals' identities in connection with an account of the patient's death will result in unwarranted blame and lasting prejudice to the health professionals".

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"This in turn may impact on patient relationships and have larger implications for the public health system, including its ability to employ health professionals and to encourage them to openly address errors in the health system."

She said the workers' identities were "not relevant to achieving any of the coroner's statutory purposes".

The case was adequately discussed in the media when the findings were released without the names, and the coroner had correctly assessed the impact of naming the workers, she said.

"This included effects on health professionals' relationships with colleagues, therapeutic relationships with their patients, willingness to engage in open review processes and employment in the public health sector."

Lance Gravatt said naming health professionals "would not punish them more or less than any other group".

"It's something of a price you pay for an open and transparent justice system. It isn't any punishment greater than what we've had."

Justice Christian Whata reserved his decision until the new year.

- Sunday Star Times

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