19 Mar 2013

Release of medics' names 'sets precedent'

11:30 pm on 19 March 2013

A health law specialist says a court ruling allowing the naming of health professionals involved in the care of a man who died will be useful.

The parents of Zachary Gravatt have successfully challenged a coroner's court ruling that suppressed the names of four health professionals responsible for Zachary's care at Auckland City Hospital in 2009.

The coroner's court ruled that the four were not responsible for the death.

The High Court upheld that but released the names anyway.

Dr Jonathan Coates says coroners generally name those giving evidence.

He says the High Court decision provides clear guidelines and will be useful.

But nurses say they're extremely disappointed.

The High Court named three nurses and a doctor involved in the care of Mr Gravatt, 22, who died in Auckland City Hospital in 2009 after his meningitis was not diagnosed for four hours.

A coroner said the death was due to a systemic failure, not failure by the health professionals, and suppressed their names.

Though the High Court upholds that finding, it says the names should be public.

Hilary Graham-Smith of the Nurses Organisation says it's wrong for health professionals who were not at fault to be exposed in this way.

Four health professionals whose names were previously suppressed are Dr Peter Black, who has since died, and nurses Claire Child, Emma Hill, and KevinGounder. One doctor's name remains suppressed.

In his ruling, Justice Whata said a general fear of criticism should not overrule the principles of open justice and free speech.

And an advocate for greater openness in the health system says a decision to name doctors and nurses involved in the care of a patient who died is a surprise and precedent-setting.

Former Health and Disability Commissioner, Ron Paterson, now a professor of health law and public policy, said naming the health workers is represents a major change in practice.

Professor Paterson said he would have expected more openness in cases where health professionals have been found to be at fault, which was not the situation here.

He said the ruling could have a chilling effect on health professionals, but is also bound to lift secrecy governing other health bodies.

Ruling may hamper open disclosure, say doctors

An organisation representing senior doctors said the court's ruling may set a precedent that is risky for the maintenance of high standards.

Association of Salaried Medical Specialists' executive director Ian Powell told Radio New Zealand's Morning Report the judge had gone too far.

Mr Powell said the implications of the decision are wide, in that it could hamper open disclosure when things go wrong.

"It is more than simply discomfort for people who have not been criticised at all, they've effectively been exonerated."

He said tragedy is not the right basis to set policies and a more measured approach is needed.

Mr Gravatt's father Lance Gravatt told Morning Report he and his family are happy justice has been served.

"I felt such a huge sense of relief yesterday with the news that the ADHB (Auckland District Health Board) would not be appealing, that the judgement would be upheld, that freedom of speech and open justice prevailed."