10 Oct 2020

Builder's apprentice observed heart surgery at Wellington hospital

7:29 pm on 10 October 2020

A medical student at Wellington Regional Hospital organised for their flatmate to watch heart surgery, but did not tell the hospital they were not studying medicine, and the hospital never verified their identity, a review has found.

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The man observed the entire surgery before doctors realised they were not a trainee doctor but a builder's apprentice.

A serious event review by the Capital and Coast district health board] shows a trainee doctor made the arrangement with the hospital for their housemate to watch a surgery.

The final year medical student had texted the hospital's registrar about "an aspiring cardiothoracic surgeon" who was keen to observe a surgery.

The hospital assumed the man was a medical student and never verified their identity. The person was given their housemate's swipe card which gave them access to the hospital's theatres. Lending this card was found to be in breach of the student's agreement when given the card by the medical school.

The man was introduced by the registrar as a medical student.

The breach was only discovered at the end of the surgery, when a doctor asked the observer about their future plans after graduation from medical school.

Dr A: "Are you interested in cardio-thoracic surgery? How's your suturing skills?"

Observer: "Not very good."

Dr A: "When's your final exam, where are you next year?"

Observer: "I'm not a medical student, I'm hoping to start in three years' time. I'm a builder's apprentice."

Shortly afterwards:

Dr A: "I didn't realize that you aren't a medical student! Maybe best not to tell anyone that you came in today. We would usually follow a bit of a different process for people who aren't medical students!"

Observer: "Hey, sorry about that. I thought [the trainee doctor] may have mentioned it. I'll keep today to myself."

The matter was quickly escalated, and within an hour and a half the health board's chief executive and chief medical officer were informed, and later the dean of the Otago University Medical School.

The privacy commissioner was informed, and the patient was apologised to.

The investigation found the DHB lacked a formal check of medical students' identities against their ID cards, and a formal process has now been brought in.

"We have apologised to the patient and their family, and wish to take this opportunity to do so again," Chief Medical Officer John Tait said.

"We take patient privacy extremely seriously, and this unacceptable gap in our security protocols was able to be exploited. Our systems have failed the patient and their family in this instance."

An Otago University medical student has been barred from Capital and Coast and Hutt DHB premises.

"The 'observer' did not take part in the surgery or have any contact with the patient. Discussions around the student's future are continuing between the DHB, university, and the Medical Council," the DHB said.

"This was a clear breach of the Code of Conduct that students sign when starting a placement, and a betrayal of the trust that we have in them to put the safety and security of patients first at all times.

"We are deeply disappointed by this student's actions and behaviour, which have impacted the patient and their family as well as on our staff."

The police were told and decided not to take any further action.