Stressed out doctors behaving badly

19 December 2010 - 13:48 By SUBASHNI NAIDOO

Stressed-out South African doctors are turning to sex, drugs and alcohol to deal with the demands of their jobs.

Some have even been removed from the national medical register for having inappropriate relationships with patients, according to the Health Professionals Council of SA (HPCSA).

The council, whose 180000 members range from medical doctors and dentists to psychologists, this week announced that nearly 200 medical professionals had been investigated for a range of offences.

Since January, the HPCSA has finalised 199 investigations into unprofessional conduct. Last year the council conducted 190 investigations, while 178 were concluded in 2008.

This week, the SA Medical Association, which acts as a trade union for medical professionals, blamed the increase on "severe stress levels". It saidhuge workloads were pushing doctors "over the edge".

Thousands of medical professionals have left SA to work in the UK, Australia and Canada, lured by better lifestyles, tax-friendly salary packages and good working conditions.

In October last year, the Sunday Times reported that there were only 800 anaesthetists left in the country and 450 general surgeons.

The Department of Health, which has been battling to keep doctors in the country, said it was concerned about stress levels and the implications.

Spokesman Fidel Hadebe said: "We are naturally worried and concerned. In a way, this may have to do with the pressures that most of us in society are faced with. Of course, we expect doctors to display and uphold the highest standards when it comes to health and wellbeing."

Among the practitioners investigated by the HPCSA this year were 48 cases of alcohol dependence and 45 cases of substance or drug abuse. Another 28 were diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

"We are gravely concerned about the increase (in cases of misconduct by practitioners registered with the HPCSA) year on year," said Marella O'Reilly, acting chief executive of the HPCSA.

Sixteen doctors have lost their right to practise since 2008.

Some cases brought before the HPCSA this year include:

Dr PA Schwartz of Port Elizabeth was suspended for three months after being found guilty of unprofessional conduct for unnecessarily removing a patient's underwear and making inappropriate sexual comments about them;

Dr M Silimela of Pretoria was removed from the medical register and suspended for three years for having a sexual relationship with a patient;

New complaints were registered against Dr Wynne Lieberthal, a Johannesburg orthopaedic surgeon, who had previously been struck from the medical register. In 2004, he was found guilty of seven counts of unprofessional conduct and unnecessary operations;

Dr FW Peer of Pretoria was found guilty of 23 counts of medical aid fraud;

Dr NJ Veltman of East London paid a R10000 admission of guilt fine after being found guilty of using excessive doses of drugs, including morphine;

Dr M J Mahlase of Arcadia was suspended for six months for performing an unnecessary operation on a patient; and

Dr TV Noinyane of Johannesburg paid a R10000 admission of guilt fine for receiving money from patients without providing a medical service.

According to the HPCSA, 26 doctors were found guilty of incompetence, 31 for insufficient care, treatment and management of patients, and 43 for overcharging or charging for services not rendered. Thirteen were probed for fraud and theft.

Dr Norman Mabasa, chairman of the SA Medical Association, said: "There has certainly been an increase in the (number) of cases over the past few years. Doctors are severely stressed both by their work and private lives.

"They deal with a lot of traumatic, life-saving cases, which cause them a great deal of stress, one of the main contributors to these conditions."

  • For the full list of doctors found guilty by the HPCSA click here.