Neurosurgeon suspended following colleague’s fatal drug overdose

by | Jun 30, 2017 | Health Blog

A neurosurgeon has been suspended for three months after engaging in professional misconduct involving illicit drug use and failure to notify of a neurosurgical registrar’s known drug use and the associated risk to patients.

In July 2012 the neurosurgeon became close friends with a neurosurgical registrar (Dr A). Between October 2012 and February 2013 the pair consumed the drug GHB whilst socialising outside work and on weekends. The pair developed a dependency on GHB and discussed trying to wean themselves off using the pharmaceutical drug Pregabalin. On 21 April 2013, Dr A was found deceased from a heroin overdose.

The Tribunal held that each of the following constituted unsatisfactory professional conduct, and cumulatively amounted to professional misconduct:

  1. Using illicit drugs when his position at the hospital meant he may have been called in on an emergency situation for one of his patients, and when his capacity to practise was at risk of being detrimentally affected because of the close temporal proximity between consumption and clinical duties;
  2. Being aware of Dr A’s use of illicit drugs (including GHB, ecstasy and cocaine) between October 2012 and February 2013 and failing to encourage him to seek professional help, or notify Dr A’s superiors at the hospital about his drug use. The neurosurgeon was found to have been so overcome with his affection and “unconditional infatuation” for Dr A that he neglected his responsibilities;
  3. Being aware of Dr A’s drug addiction and physical and mental withdrawal symptoms from March 2012 to April 2013 and his use of GHB during hospital shifts, and continuing to fail to encourage Dr A to seek help, or to notify persons of the risks posed to himself and patients;
  4. Prescribing Temazepam and Pregabalin to Dr A to counteract the withdrawal symptoms, in circumstances where the neurosurgeon did not have sufficient experience with addiction or insomnia medication, was in a close personal relationship with Dr A, and was likely impaired due to his own regular use of GHB;
  5. Providing false and misleading information at a hearing of the Medical Council of NSW by trying to downplay Dr A’s use and experiences with GHB.

The Tribunal noted the neurosurgeon’s dedication and competence in his profession, the complete lack of suggestion that any patient was prejudiced in their care or treatment by his impugned conduct, and the passage of time since the relevant events.

The Tribunal considered that a suspension was warranted to mark the seriousness of the conduct, and considered that conditions were necessary to prompt the practitioner to seek further treatment and gain some insight. The conditions include treatment and monitoring by an addiction specialist, random urine drug testing and mandatory weekly attendance at group therapy.

The evidence given at the hearing established that at least four staff of a single hospital consumed drugs together outside of the hospital and outside of work hours. The Tribunal found this evidence to be particularly disturbing and requested that the Registrar forward a copy of its reasons to the New South Wales Minister for Health. The Tribunal’s concern related primarily to the potential danger to patients as a result of the residual effects of drugs taken by practitioners and nursing staff.

To read the full decision in Health Care Complaints Commission v DAC [2017] NSWCATOD 98, click here.

Emma Jack

Emma Jack