Hospital exposé: call for whistleblower protection


The Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM) has called on the Health Department to support whistleblowers who have patients’ interests at heart. Kathryn Cleary reports

Commenting on the recent Tower Psychiatric Hospital exposé and subsequent resignation of psychiatrist Kiran Sukeri, PSAM Director Jay Kruuse stated that too often public servants face unfair consequences as a result of speaking out. “The position of PSAM when it comes to whistleblowers is [that]we need the Department of Health to uphold the Protected Disclosures Act.” 

In 2000, the South African government introduced the Protected Disclosures Act, commonly known as the ‘Whistleblower Act’.

The act serves: “To make provision for procedures in terms of which employees in both the private and the public sector may disclose information regarding unlawful or irregular conduct by their employers or other employees in the employ of their employers; to provide for the protection of employees who make a disclosure which is protected in terms of this Act; and to provide for matters connected therewith.”

“When a nurse, or a doctor, or any person providing medical care makes a disclosure, they should not be subject to occupational detriment for making that disclosure,” Kruuse told Grocott’s Mail. “It’s high time the Department shows it can actually protect those who have the interests of patients at heart – those ensuring health care is provided to them in a way that is adequate and responsive to their needs.”

“If you speak out as a health provider and say that a standard of care is endangering the well-being of that patient, that’s a protected disclosure,” Kruuse said.

“The National Health Act is quite clear about what kind of care should be provided to patients. If you’re failing to uphold the National Health Act and you have a member of staff who then exposes that, that’s a protected disclosure. The details of the disclosure should be investigated – not the person who made the disclosure.”

“Too often we see public servants facing sanction for speaking out. In many cases the public servants have raised their concerns with their seniors, and there has not been adequate action taken to address those concerns.”

Often those public servants left state employment and went into private practice.

“That trend needs to end,” Kruuse said.

Former Tower psychiatrist, Sukeri, told Rapport journalist Suzanne Venter that patients were being treated in horrific ways. “I know what I’m going to tell you will jeopardise my safety, as well as that of my family, but I don’t care,” he was quoted saying in ‘Eastern Cape’s ticking psychiatric time bomb’ published in City Press and Rapport on 4 March. Those patients urgently need to be helped,” he told Venter. Sukeri claimed that patients’ living conditions were inhumane, and that the institution’s death registers had been forged.

The article showcases a photo of a single room in ward 6B (one of eight) used for patients. The photo displays a bed, an empty two-litre Coke bottle and a packet of chips.

Sukeri’s claims have since been refuted by EC Health Department Spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo. Kupelo, along with MEC Pumza Patricia Dyantyi paid a ‘surprise’ visit to Tower Hospital two days after the publication of the Rapport article. Kupelo later stated that everything was fine at the institution and that the MEC could find no evidence of anything Sukeri had said.

Following the visit, Kupelo announced that an independent task team had been dispatched to investigate the conditions at the hospital more closely.

11 March Rapport published a follow-up article quoting National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) branch chairperson, Lawrence Mtsila, stating that Tower staff had been instructed to clean the premises the night before the MEC’s visit.

14 March, a statement issued by DA Spokesperson for Health Celeste Barker stated that “deception at Tower Hospital must be investigated”.

“The DA is deeply disturbed and concerned about the well-choreographed show that was presented to a DA delegation that visited the Tower Psychiatric Hospital in Fort Beaufort on Monday 12 March 2018,” Barker said. “It became clear to us that the hospital was cleaned up and prepared for the visit.”

Barker and Shadow Health Minister Patricia Kopane, toured the institution with its upper management.

“We were escorted to a ward filled with state-of-the-art new beds,” Barker said in the statement. “Much to our surprise, we found a linen room filled with new-looking garments, more sheets and clothing than I have seen in bigger hospitals and full fridges with separate storage for meat, milk, fresh produce, eggs and shelves packed with loaves of bread.”

The DA delegation found the single rooms to be empty, a stark contrast to Rapport’s photo. They were told the rooms were not used by patients as “they do not meet Mental Health Care standards or the standards of SASOP and the locks are broken”.

Kupelo has been approached for comment regarding the DA’s findings and alleged cover-up but has not provided a response at this time.

Grocott’s Mail spoke to Mtsila after the DA’s visit, in his capacity as Nehawu branch chairperson. He confirmed Nehawu’s statement of a cover-up in preparation for the MEC’s visit.

Mtsila described how staff had been instructed to work alongside CEO Ntombizandile Ngcume,  scrubbing from top to toe the parts of the hospital that would be visited. This included bringing beds into a disused ward and removing patients from the single cells and transferring them to that ward. He also confirmed “long-term” use of the dilapidated single rooms for overflow patients.

Mtsila said the union was very concerned at the exit of professional staff from the hospital.

“In 2016, 31 people resigned – most of them because of the interference of the CEO in their duties,” he told Grocott’s Mail. In the first three months of 2018 there had already been eight resignations. Three of those, including Sukeri, had been doctors.

Nehawu expressed concern that there was no doctor on duty during the weekends, and confirmed that following Sukeri’s resignation, Tower Psychiatric Hospital had no full-time psychiatrist.

Mtsila added that the union was worried about the institution’s intolerance for whistleblowers.

“When you speak up about something that is wrong, the management takes you as someone who is trying to have them blacklisted.

“They will chase you – but at the end of the day, I’m speaking about what has been hidden at Tower.”

Following Rapport’s articles, investigations are currently under way by the Department of Health and the South African Human Rights Commission.

Mtsila confirmed to Grocott’s Mail that Nehawu had participated in the Department’s investigation. “We were interviewed as the union. I would say the procedure was free and fair.”

Grocott’s Mail will continue to report on further developments of this story.

  • Additional reporting by Sue Maclennan

A patient room in ward 6B of Tower Psychiatric Hospital in Fort Beaufort. Photo originally published in Rapport.

Patient room in ward 6B on 12 March. Photo: DA, supplied.

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