Inquiry into death called for

Monday September 11, 2017 Written by Published in Opinion
Answers to a tragic death at Rarotonga Hospital (pictured) are urgently needed, says Wilkie Rasmussen. 17091017 Answers to a tragic death at Rarotonga Hospital (pictured) are urgently needed, says Wilkie Rasmussen. 17091017

A lady relative of mine died last Thursday morning.


The story goes that she went to the Tupapa clinic on Wednesday saying she was unwell with the flu. She was prescribed Panadol and told to go home and rest. That evening her fever and aches got worse and she was admitted to Rarotonga Hospital.

Only then she was diagnosed as suffering from pneumonia. She passed away the next morning. She was only 51 years old. She leaves behind a husband and family in shock, wanting answers. Hence this column.

Tough questions need to be asked and the government needs to step up and take responsibility. What really happened?

Has this woman died needlessly? Was she misdiagnosed?

Was there negligence on the doctor(s) that attended to her? Should she have been prescribed other medication to address her complaints?

Did she fall through a gap because of lack of follow up? Was it taken for granted that she had the flu? If she did what strain was it, how severe was it?

Did the doctor(s) check her medical history properly to see if she is susceptible to pneumonia? And there are so many more questions to ask.

This is the second time a death like this happened in my community here in Rarotonga. A Penrhyn lady who returned from Australia for her daughter’s wedding fell victim to a similar attitude from those who are supposed to do their best to cure or save people.

She went to hospital complaining of a cold and was given exactly the same medication as this current case, Panadol.

A day later she was admitted to the hospital, placed in intensive care and doctors owned up that she was suffering from pneumonia. By then her lungs were full of white mist (liquid) shown in her x-rays. She died the next day. She left behind a husband, children, grandchildren who were devastated. Her family put questions to the Health ministry as to what happened and why but predictable answers were given, that it was too late to save her.

 Even then I felt that such responses were not enough. The Heath ministry was far too casual in its responses and did not account for the death.

In the case of the Australian lady, I suggested to her husband and immediate family to think about taking legal action against Health and the government for negligence or at least to make them accountable. But the bottom line is, we just want answers to put our minds to rest. However, like most Maori Cook Islanders the family were shy about such things. This was brought about by the belief that their actions will jeopardise the employment of their relatives and friends in the Health ministry.

I call on the government to initiate a Commission of Inquiry into this latest death. At best this misadventure for the deceased and her family triggers off inquiry into cause of death and the appropriateness of actions or lack of actions of the medical professionals.

It is all for the purpose of preventing repeats of these sort of deaths.

They should not happen in this day and age. During each budget debate in Parliament the government, through the Health minister, speaks of innovation and breakthroughs in our health provision services. But there is no point in the gloss when the fundamentals are broken. There is also no point in pretending that there is no problem. Obviously there is, when a patient dies from what seems to have been a preventable death.

Lately there have been calls particularly from the opposition Democrats for the outer islands, to have doctors stationed on each island.

The withdrawal of doctors in the outer islands is of course part of a trend by government to economise and cut down on costs, citing that in these days of email, Skype and Messenger, the diagnosis of patients can be done instantly between nurse practitioners on an outer island with a doctor based here in Rarotonga.

That may be so, but my own preliminary cost analysis shows that it costs the government more to fly referral patients from the outer islands to Rarotonga than to have doctors based on the islands.

For example, not a single child was born on Penrhyn Island for more than a decade. All of them were born here and mothers were referred here at the cost of say $20,000 each flight. The decision to fly them here was made long ago when due to the lack of a doctor on the island, a mother and child died after birth when complications arose.

Let’s say five chartered flights a year by the Health Ministry, that’s $100,000 a year. Sometimes seats are bought by the Ministry of Health on flights scheduled for Manihiki to detour to Penrhyn to pick up patients, and of course these patients are entitled to a return fare home.

 So the cost is much more than $100,000. I have yet to read any cost and savings data from the Health ministry on these charters.

What I am pointing to here is the principle of accountability and providing a comprehensive health service. We are dealing with human lives here and no-one should be left out of the equation.

If better health service would be provided by doctors based on each outer islands despite declining populations, then so be it. And conversely, if deaths occur here on Rarotonga because of incompetent doctors then heads should roll.

Ultimately, the onus falls on the government. The prime minister and Health minister will need to explain to the public why this tragic death took place.

Two deaths are two too many. I am aware of a third very similar death of a young boy. Who knows whether there are others? If there are, then something is terribly wrong and it must be stopped. That is why a Commission of Inquiry is needed.

The public wants answers.

- Wilkie Rasmussen

Leave a comment