‘How could this happen?’: Indigenous health tragedies spark search for answers

Aboriginal Health Matters is using the law to highlight medical mistreatment based on policy failures, bias, or racial profiling

 

 

Jane* woke up in so much agony from stomach pain that she could not walk. She crawled across the floor to reach the telephone and call her mother, who took her straight to the emergency department of a regional hospital in Western Australia.

 

The 19-year-old told emergency department doctors and nurses that her pain was 10 out of 10, and a test revealed her blood pressure was extremely low. She was given Mylanta and some morphine and told she had indigestion.

 

No scan was performed to see if the pain had anything to do with her pregnancy. When Jane said she was still in severe pain, more Mylanta was given to her. Staff tried to send her home but Jane collapsed back on to the bed while trying to get dressed.

 
 
Ms

 
 

Ms Dhu, who died in police custody in Port Hedland in Western Australia in August 2014. Photograph: Courtesy of Ms Dhu’s family
 

 

 

In fact, Jane was bleeding internally and her life was at risk. She was suffering from an ectopic pregnancy, a condition where a foetus develops outside the womb, usually in a fallopian tube.

 

After she was rushed into life-saving surgery, two nurses walked into the waiting room and allegedly told a member of Janes family: Congratulations. Its triplets. Two are dead but well try to save the other one.

Janes case is one of several being examined by the National Justice Project as part of their Aboriginal Health Matters initiative, which is dedicated to using the law to highlight cases of medical mistreatment of Indigenous Australians based on systemic policy failures, unconscious bias, or racial profiling. The first project of its kind in Australia, it is being led by the human rights lawyer George Newhouse.

 

Jane believes that if she had been taken seriously by the hospital staff, or by the GP and emergency department staff she had visited in agony two weeks before, she would not have been left bleeding internally for seven hours in the emergency department that day. It was only when a surgeon overheard a family member of Janes complaining about the pain Jane was in that a scan was ordered.

 

The scan revealed the haemorrhaging ectopic pregnancy.

 

The baby in Janes uterus survived the surgery but one of her fallopian tubes required removal. Newhouse said Jane was left suffering from severe shock.

 

Newhouse said the government insurer also refused to offer any compensation, including for initially losing the complaint, then not replying to or responding to the complaint, and then denying a claim that was made after the three-year limitation period allowed under the law, because Jane had been waiting for the outcome of the complaint before making the claim.

 

They dismissed her, and effectively ignored her, Newhouse told Guardian Australia.

 

I believe the government and the health department and the hospital all behaved unconscionably, he said. And she should have that recognised. I want to hold them to account for Janes sake but also to change the culture.

 

But Im told there are many more cases. We want the health system to change. The National Justice Project is calling for Indigenous Australians to come forward and tell their stories.

 

Jane, who did not drink or take drugs, believes emergency department staff dismissed her because they believed she was under the influence or drugs or alcohol.

 

The Aboriginal Health Matters project will present a report of cases like Janes to the Australian Human Rights Commission and demand that a formal investigation or inquiry into the treatment of and discrimination and bias against Aboriginal Australians in the health system will be launched. The projects lawyers will also take action on a case-by-case basis.

 

We found other evidence of that in hospitals, particularly in Western Australia and in the Northern Territory, of really bad health outcomes for Aboriginal Australians based on false assumptions, such as that they must be under the influence of drugs and alcohol, Newhouse said.

 

Its time for a review of how Aboriginal people who come to emergency departments with pain are being treated as I think we could learn quite a bit. Some of the deaths that have occurred involved cases of Aboriginal people who presented attended emergency departments, only to face barriers to receiving care.

 

Janes experience of being left bleeding internally in an emergency department shares similarities to that of multi-award winning Indigenous musician Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu.

 

The Yolngu man was admitted to emergency at the Royal Darwin hospital on Easter Sunday with internal bleeding complications relating to liver disease. But hospital staff were alleged to have wrongly attributed Gurrumuls condition to alcohol abuse. He was allegedly left for hours in the emergency department bleeding internally, until his condition deteriorated so severely that he was rushed to intensive care.

 
 
Naomi

 
 
Naomi Williams, 27, died when she was six months pregnant from meningococcal and septicemia, hours after being sent home from the emergency department of Tumut regional hospital. Photograph: courtesy of the Williams family
 

 

 

Gurrumuls allegations have been rejected by the Northern Territory government out of hand without any meaningful inquiry, the report prepared for the Human Rights Commission by Newhouse and his team states.

 

Howevere, Dr Dinesh Arya, executive director of medical services at Royal Darwin Hospital, said the idea that Gurrumul had been racially profiled was ridiculous.

 

It is nonsensical to even consider that very hardworking health professionals would consider racially profiling anyone or making clinical decisions that are not based on clinical need, he said.

 

At every point in Mr Yunupingus assessment, he was clinically assessed, and a decision was made about what clinical care he should receive and the care he received was according to plan.

 

The report prepared for the Human Rights Commission by Newhouse and his team says: There are many cases like Jane and Gurrumul. There are also many other challenges that Indigenous Australians have to confront during and after hospital visits that deserve attention.

 

Naomi Williams, 27, did not survive her visit to the emergency department of Tumut hospital, in regional New South Wales, on New Years Day this year. Her case is another being examined by the project.

 

A coroner found that Williams, a Wiradjuri woman, died of meningococcal and septicaemia, a dangerous blood infection that can attack and affect organs including the heart. She died hours after being sent home from the emergency department of Tumut hospital with paracetamol. She was six months pregnant.

 

She was told to take some Panadol and sent home, her mother, Sharon Williams, wrote in a letter to the states health minister, Jillian Skinner. Within 24 hours she was dead. How could this happen?

 

Like Jane, Naomi had also attended the emergency department on previous occasions in the weeks before her death.

 

On one of those visits, Naomi was referred by hospital staff to drug, alcohol and mental health services. But Williams said that her daughter did not drink or use drugs apart from occasionally using marijuana.

 

A spokeswoman for the Murrumbidgee local health district, which oversees Tumut hospital, said that meningococcal meningitis could be very difficult to diagnose in the early stages of the disease as many symptoms are common to many mild viral illnesses.

 

All hospital procedures had been followed, the spokeswoman also said, adding that the hospital now used a critical care advisory service, which included the use of telehealth cameras to link to specialist clinical advice at Wagga Wagga rural referral hospital.

 

Naomis is a story that resonates with Samuel and Norma Dinah, who live in Western Australia. Their 44-year-old son, Samuel Jr, died in April 2013 from an ear infection that spread to his brain. In the month before his death, an ambulance had been called three times, his father said.

 

And, three times, they sent him home with Panadol, he said.

 

Samuel Sr cries as he remembers his sons final visit to the hospital.

 

They picked him up from my daughters house in the ambulance and they gave him a morphine shot because the pain was too strong in his head, Dinah says.

 

And that was the last of him. He had a massive ear infection and his eardrum burst, and the infection spread to his head.

 

Norma said Samuel was braindead by the time he arrived at Sir Charles Gairdner hospital. The Dinahs were told they should allow doctors to turn off his life support.

 

If they had of done a brain scan or something like that all those times he went to hospital before they might have found something, Samuel said. We miss him to bits.

 

The Dinahs say they have not received a report from the WA coroner.

 

The WA health minister, John Day, told Guardian Australia that he understood Jane and the Dinah families concerns and said he had asked for a briefing on those cases.

 

Health services in Western Australia are committed to treating all patients with compassion, respect and care, whatever their racial or ethnic background, Day said.

 

Health staff in WA are required to undertake mandatory training using an electronic learning package, Aboriginal Cultural eLearning a healthier future. Since its introduction on 1 July 2015, in excess of 28,000 WA health staff have completed the training.

 

He could not comment further for privacy reasons, he said.

 

An expert in rural and Indigenous health, Prof Sandra Thompson, said in rural and regional hospitals in particular: You have got people who are not the most on top of their game treating people with complex health problems.

 

Thats a bit of a problem … I think we have to say the health system doesnt work perfectly and there are errors that get made. But we have to learn from those errors. Sometimes, it is too easy for things to be brushed under the carpet.

 

Thompson said she was familiar with Janes case and that there have been some real insults in the way its been managed.

 

Id like to do a review of how Aboriginal people who come to emergency departments with pain are being treated, as I think we could learn quite a bit about that, she said.

 

I certainly think there needs to be a review of some of the deaths that have occurred from those who presented to an emergency department a short time before they died. But there are barriers to getting through the incredibly onerous systems and gatekeeping that exists in the health industry.

 

Thompson was among the experts to give evidence at the inquest of an Indigenous woman identified only as Ms Dhu, who died in 2014 at Hedland Health Campus in WA from septicaemia and pneumonia. Ms Dhu, 22, had been given painkillers as the only treatment at an emergency department hours before she died.

 

The coroner heard that a police officer was caught by a security camera saying Ms Dhus condition was a good deterrent not to take drugs. Negligible amounts of methamphetamine and marijuana were found in her blood but a coroner determined they were not the cause of her death.

 

Part of Aboriginal people not getting adequately treated sometimes is because its assumed they are on drugs and abusing alcohol, Thompson said. I think for people who work on front lines its difficult, because they do see people who abuse drugs and alcohol. But they need to put that to one side.

 

Ms Dhus case will also form part of the Aboriginal Health Matters project.

 

The chief executive officer of the Aboriginal Legal Service, Dennis Eggington, applauded the project.

 

The issue of how Aboriginal people are being treated within the health system has been of grave concern to many of us over a long period of time and I think its an issue worthy of a royal commission he said.

 

There should be a better way for the community and the Aboriginal community to have these cases investigated.

 

Aboriginal people come to us for legal advice, they dont go to a high-profile law firm, but we dont have the expertise or the resources in the area.

 

* Name has been changed to protect identities

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/aug/12/how-could-this-happen-indigenous-health-tragedies-spark-search-for-answers

 

The post ‘How could this happen?’: Indigenous health tragedies spark search for answers appeared first on Current Health Events.

Advertisements
‘How could this happen?’: Indigenous health tragedies spark search for answers

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s