September 2, 2005

Australia’s “Dr. Death” inquiry shut down

By Michael Perry

SYDNEY (Reuters) - An inquiry into an Australian hospital's
director of surgery, dubbed "Dr. Death" by staff after he was
linked to 87 patient deaths, was shut down on Friday after a
court ruled the inquiry chief was biased.

The A$6 million (US$4.5 million) inquiry, called to examine
problems in the health system in Australia's tropical
Queensland state, had four witnesses and 10 days left to run.

Its interim report in May said Indian-trained Dr. Jayant
Patel, linked to 87 deaths at the Bundaberg Hospital in
northern Queensland in 2003-2004, should face murder,
negligence and fraud charges.

While Patel has not commented on the allegations, his
lawyer has rejected them. His family in India has defended him,
saying he is a very good doctor.

The inquiry's closure shocked the doctor's former patients
and staff.

"These people have suffered. These people don't deserve
this," said John O'Brien, whose wife was a former patient.

Patel, a U.S. citizen, left Australia for the United States
in March after being linked to the deaths.

The Queensland Supreme Court ruled on Friday that inquiry
head Tony Morris and his two deputies be disqualified from
future sittings due to bias, forcing closure of the inquiry.

Judge Martin Moynihan said that Bundaberg Hospital's
suspended district manager, Peter Leck, and suspended director
of medical services Dr. Darren Keating had proved their case
that Morris displayed "ostensible bias" against them.

Hospital administrators have been criticized for hiring
Patel when he had been banned from performing surgery in two
U.S. states.

Queensland state premier Peter Beattie said it was too
costly to set up another inquiry. He said police would pursue
Patel, the coroner would investigate hospital deaths, a unit
would review the inquiry's evidence, and patients could seek

"We will finish what we started. We will ensure that the
people of Bundaberg will get justice," Beattie told reporters.

During the inquiry, Bundaberg Hospital's head intensive
care nurse said a doctor turned off a woman's life support
ventilator because Patel wanted her bed to operate on another

In another case she saw Patel try to drain blood in a
"stabbing motion" from a patient's heart, using a hard needle
some 50 times. The man died that night after Patel told his
family he was not critically ill.

The nurse said death certificates were falsified and
patients refused transfers to other hospitals to cover up
botched treatment and surgery.

She said Patel was also known as "Dr. E. coli," a reference
to the high number of his patients with infections.

A separate government-ordered review of 221 of Patel's
patients found he had an acceptable medical track record, but
he "exhibited an unacceptable level of care" that contributed
to eight patient deaths and may have led to another eight.