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Surgeon accuses Te Whatu Ora of muzzling staff

Davina Zimmer
Surgeon putting on gloves
Surgeon putting on gloves  Davina Zimmer

Chris Wakeman has ignored whistleblowing reminders, because he believes as a doctor he has a responsibility to advocate for his patients.

The colorectal surgeon has two patients who have been waiting 10 months to have their stoma bags removed after being cured of cancer and says it would be nice to be able to provide them a happier conclusion to their treatment journey.

He believes if doctors don’t speak up about these cases, people won’t know, and will go on believing the country has a first-world healthcare system, which he likes to think New Zealand should have.

He confirms senior staff have been reminded of whistleblowing clauses in their contracts but confesses he’s completely ignored them. He says he's happy to stand up and speak because his patients are suffering. 

“We were reminded by two emails and I’ve had a phone call since speaking to the media about the whistleblower status in our contract. Trying to muzzle us basically.” 

The emails were sent by Dr Richard French, Canterbury Chief Medical Officer, to senior medical staff. The first came shortly after the sacking of former health chair, Rob Campbell. 

The email recognises the right of healthcare employees to comment publicly and engage in public debate on matters relevant to their professional expertise and experience.

"However, this is not a 'get out of jail' clause and commentary that breaches MCNZ standards or our own Code of Conduct may well still have consequence," it reads.

It also details an employee engaging in such public discussion should advise and discuss the issues with their employer prior to entering public commentary.

Responding to the muzzling allegations, French says the emails aren't an attempt to stop staff from speaking to the media. 

“We acknowledge the importance of senior doctors speaking up publicly when they have unresolved concerns about patient care, or the health and safety of staff.”

Wakeman says there haven’t been blatant threats of dismissal and thinks it more rumour at this stage. He says Te Whatu Ora dismissing staff would look worse in the public eye than letting them talk.

But he says it just scares everyone. One of his patients, who is also a Te Whatu Ora staff member, decided against speaking to media about their surgery delay because they didn’t want to risk any pushback.

“They should not be scared and they shouldn’t be muzzled by Te Whatu Ora, they should be allowed to speak the truth.”

Wakeman acknowledges the crisis is a difficult situation to manage, but says something needs to change. He says staff aren't even allowed to change the standard surgery delay letter that goes out to patients, which says they should wait no more than two months.

“They should not be scared and they shouldn’t be muzzled by Te Whatu Ora, they should be allowed to speak the truth.”
Colorectal Surgeon, Chris Wakeman

French didn't clarify what kind of consequences staff could face if their comments breached Medical Council New Zealand standards or Te Whatu Ora’s own Code of Conduct.