Richards: Probe luring patients to private care

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Independent Senator Dr Paul Richards. – File photo by Roger Jacob

INDEPENDENT Senator Dr Paul Richards on June 26 called for an investigation into how patients in public hospitals were being diverted at a cost to see their doctors at their private practices.

As chairman of the Joint Select Committee (JSC) on Social Services and Public Administration, he said the committee had heard many complaints of this practice from members of the public at the JSC’s various town hall meetings.

At Cabildo Chambers in Port of Spain, the JSC met officials from the Ministry of Health and four regional health authorities (RHAs), namely the North Central (NCRHA), Eastern (ERHA), South West (SWRHA) and North West (NWRHA).

Richards said the issue was not being pursued as vigorously as it should be.

“It is widespread. The public is very disturbed.”

He called for an investigation and said violations should be met with greater consequences.

While one respondent had earlier said offenders could be damned for “bringing the RHA into disrepute,” Richards uttered the phrase to ponder what it actually meant and asked what were the legal outcomes of such a loosely defined offence.

Ministry of Health Permanent Secretary Asif Ali promised to look at having an investigation but said they had very few written complaints to investigate.

Richards, noting the parliamentary agenda, remarked, “We may have whistleblower legislation soon.”

Opposition Senator David Nakhid said the fact that patient complaints must be submitted in writing was a likely disincentive to patients with poor literacy skills.

“Once you tell them write your complaint, they’re gone.”

He urged assistance for such complaints, to which Ali said this already exists.

SWRHA CEO Dr Brian Armour earlier attributed “fear of victimisation” for a lack of complaints against doctors who shunt public patients to their private practices.

He said it was time for a national discussion on the issue.

Nakhid asked how many complaints the SWRHA had received. Armour replied none.

An incredulous Nakhid said, “None? None? Zero?”

Armour said, “We know it happens but persons have to come forward.”

Nakhid asked who the patients were afraid of, such that it prevented them complaining. Armour replied that ill individuals may feel in a vulnerable position.

Richards said such complaints had come up many times at the JSC’s town hall meetings.

Armour said he had not received any complaints in his five year term.

NWRHA CEO Anthony Blake said he had received a complaint, regarding surgery.

“Yes. It is a phenomenon we have seen and are seeing.

“You want to emphasise to physicians at hospital that this is misconduct, conflict of interest. We spoke to a number of surgeons in particular.

“We need the public to put things in writing. Information is not evidence.”

Richards asked if doctors who work in the public sector were obliged to declare if they also worked in private practice.

Ali said he did not think they were so required, but said he needed to look at their employment contracts.

ERHA CEO Angelina Rampersad-Pierre said the issue has not been seen in the ERHA but if it is seen the authority has systems in place to deal with it.

Richards also asked about doctors clocking in to work in public hospitals but then vanishing to go to work at their private practices.

Blake said this was a matter “of grave concern.”

He said managers must understand their role and that a monthly review of attendance must not be a rubber stamping exercise.

“It is an issue. It is a problem, and we are working on it.”