Probe on chemo deaths claim
Minister claims ex-cancer chief was resisting change
Health Minister Joe Cassar is investigating the claim that patients of Gozo’s general hospital died from chemotherapy toxicity because treatment was carried out without the necessary expertise.
“Obviously, if there is a case of negligence – whether it happened in Gozo or in Malta – we will deal with it like any other case,” Dr Cassar told The Times.
The allegations were made by Stephen Brincat, the former head of Mater Dei Hospital’s Oncology Department, who resigned last week claiming his advice was repeatedly ignored by the government.
“This is news to me,” Dr Cassar said about the alleged deaths, adding that he had already asked the director generals involved since 2007 for the necessary information. Dr Cassar said the director generals had not recalled any such instances off the top of their heads.
He also called on Prof. Brincat to state whether he had asked the department to investigate this negligence when it occurred. Prof. Brincat, who made the claim in a letter to The Sunday Times, did not specify the number of deaths or when they happened.
Dr Cassar appeared to be suspicious of the consultant’s claims. At one point he said it was disrespectful towards patients to cast doubt on the work of the hospital by mentioning “death”.
“As chairman, his obligation by law is to alert the (Health) Department of negligence. The department is then obliged to carry out an inquiry and, depending on the inquiry, one either asks the police or the respective council to intervene,” Dr Cassar said.
“I hope that, if he put the department in cognisance of the facts, investigations were held.”
Among the reasons for his resignation, Prof. Brincat has claimed there was too much “political interference” in cancer treatment at the hospital.
The remark was picked up by Opposition leader Joseph Muscat yesterday, who said the Health Minister and the Prime Minister would have to answer to these serious and “frightening” allegations, among them that Prof. Brincat was told which patients to discharge and which to admit.
Dr Muscat also said someone must take responsibility for the waste of time and money resulting from the decision to set up a cancer hospital at Zammit Clapp Hospital only to later take it to Mater Dei.
The Times asked Dr Cassar about Prof. Brincat’s claims regarding political intrusion.
“I really don’t know where he is getting this from. I don’t think we have ever told him who to treat or not to treat,” Dr Cassar said.
The minister recalled one incident where the Health Department took a decision to move a number of terminally ill cancer patients to Boffa hospital to make room at Mater Dei so that no operations would be cancelled.
“There were a lot of patients and we needed beds. We realised there were empty beds in Boffa during the weekend and a decision was taken for those empty beds to be filled. “I don’t know if you would call that political intrusion,” he said, describing it instead as a “judgement call”.
Dr Cassar stressed that the department never told doctors to treat a patient over someone else.
“God forbid that ever happened. If that is the problem, I urge him to tell us and I will investigate.”
However, Dr Cassar lashed out at Labour for politicising the issue, saying the party had to decide whether they wanted patients to be kept waiting at the emergency department or if they want the government to find empty beds.
“If there are empty beds in Gozo, for instance, would Labour in government recommend that 20 Maltese long-term patients are transferred from Mater Dei to Gozo?”
Dr Cassar said he was surprised by Prof. Brincat’s resignation but Prof. Brincat had constantly resisted change, particularly on the plans to introduce chemotherapy in Gozo and to include haematology within the oncology centre under one chairman.
“We’re basically talking about treating solid cancers and blood cancers in the same department. This happens abroad... In fact, we originally wanted to include radiology too since cancers are nowadays being treated with radiological intervention too.”
Similarly, the chairman of medicine is also responsible for renal and respiratory systems, while the chairman of neurology is also responsible for neurosurgery and rehabilitation.
Even in the call for applications, Dr Cassar said, the emphasis was on management not clinical acumen.
The minister said the chairman’s role was mostly administrative and required “vision”.
He questioned whether Prof. Brincat had such a vision for the cancer treatment in Gozo, including what sort of training should be given.
“We have been asking for chemotherapy to take place in Gozo for the last number of years, not months,” said Dr Cassar, rubbishing the claim that this was being rushed for political expediency. “And he has been resisting it.”
The Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses has described Prof. Brincat’s claims as an “insult” to Gozitan nurses, saying they were equally capable as their Maltese counterparts.
Dr Brincat had said Gozitan nurses did not have enough training to perform chemotherapy in Gozo.
MUMN president Paul Pace said the union had been lobbying for chemotherapy in Gozo for the past years.
“The suffering of Gozitan patients to travel back home to Gozo after chemotherapy is immense… Chemotherapy in Gozo is a blessing for the Gozitan patients afflicted by cancer.
“There should be no setbacks by any resignations since patients’ suffering is involved,” he said.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi yesterday made only a passing reference to the issue, saying that politicians and doctors should work together to provide the best care for patients within a sustainable structure.
Instead of criticising Prof. Brincat, he paid tribute to him and other professionals in the sector and urged them to continue working in the interests of patients.