March 30, 2020
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Washed Your Hands?

Dr Haneef's detention brings back memories of a racist backlash

Washed Your Hands?
Washed Your Hands?
After the soft-spoken Dr Mohammed Haneef was detained on July 2 with a one-way ticket out of Brisbane airport, for alleged links to the botched terror attacks in the UK, the X-ray machine seems to be again going over the jinxed figure of the Indian doctor Down Under.

The extended detention of Dr Haneef is one part of the plot. He's been held under the new anti-terror law, which allows authorities to keep suspects in custody without charge. In fact, 10 days after, authorities were still scouring Dr Haneef's computer hard disc, reportedly containing files totalling some 30,000 pages, but he was reportedly yet to be interrogated. As we go to press, Australian PM John Howard was insisting "there were no charges against him", for now.

But the period of his "suspended animation" saw a countrywide security sweep—targeting other Indian doctors who had come on the same 457 skilled migrant visa programme (a temporary work visa) as Dr Haneef. Four of them were 'interviewed' last week and released after police raided two Western Australian hospitals and two other undisclosed premises. So was a fifth Indian doctor in New South Wales. The Australian Federal Police and local authorities have seized their computers, personal organisers, even mobile phones.

It's still early days for a prediction on Dr Haneef, a cousin to Kafeel and Sabeel Ahmed, the brothers arrested for their role in the terror plot in Britain. But whether or not charges are finally pressed against him, the episode has willy-nilly reopened an old wound—quite unrelated to global terror— that had barely healed. For, it has renewed the larger debate about employing foreign doctors in Australia. And it's especially daunting for doctors of Indian origin. Overnight, workplace 'ambience' has changed for him/her. Suddenly it's him in the crosshairs, his work is under scrutiny, his shifts are a lot longer (while his Aussie colleagues play hookey during weekends). But the Indian doc isn't complaining. He can't. The adverse publicity the "Bangalore doctor" has generated has him on the backfoot. For ophthalmologist Sid Orekondy, who's lived and practised in Australia for three decades now, it's a bad case of deja vu. The swirl of suspicion surrounding community colleagues brings back dark memories of the 2005 scandal involving the dubious methods and uncertain past of Dr Jayant Patel. A US-trained surgeon practising in a Queensland hospital, Patel was accused of causing the death of eight patients and also linked to the deaths of 80 more.

The scandalous case of Dr Patel then illustrated the lax method of appointing overseas doctors—he was made director of surgery at the Bundaberg Hospital in Queensland even though he wasn't registered with the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, and was allowed to operate freely between 2003-05 before whistleblowers brought his deplorable methods to light. In one incident, reported by a nurse, a patient died because Patel removed a part of his oesophagus; in another case a woman underwent a hernia operation only to find there was no hernia. The wound subsequently became infected, causing her pain that persists even today. He is alleged to have removed a ventilator from a serious head injury patient without checking first whether he was brain-dead, only because he needed the bed. The patient subsequently died. All in all, the media had a field day with more gory reports coming out everyday. Some nurses claimed they hid their patients from Patel when they knew he was on call. He's said to have had poor regard for hygiene, apparently once responding to a nurse's concern over his unwashed hands with a "doctors don't have germs" comment.

Finally, the appointment of a Royal Commission of inquiry saw Dr Patel flee to his luxury home in Oregon, US, in 2005. Dubbed as "Dr Death", he is wanted back here on multiple counts of manslaughter, four counts of negligence and eight charges of fraud. His "bloody record" severely tarnished the image of Indian doctors, who were till then well respected here, prompting them to launch a media blitz of their own to restore their severely damaged reputation.

"It was a huge uphill battle for young Indians working in hospitals here...and although we were dealing with disassociating ourselves from one bad apple, all of us were being tarred with the same brush," says Dr Orekondy, originally from Mysore and ex-president of the Overseas and Australian Medical Graduates Association in New South Wales. The incensed public mood compelled at least one hospital to put up anti-racism posters in an attempt to dissuade patients from abusing the staff. "Although nobody said anything to my face, my surgical list dropped and other doctors were being asked if they were Indian by patients. It's now all going to happen again. This time we can't even fall back on our reputation as good doctors. The situation is totally shattering," Orekondy adds.

The Gold Coast Hospital, Southport, where Haneef was registrar

But it isn't as if the demand for doctors trained overseas, including India, is going to taper overnight. As Queensland premier Peter Beatie told national TV channel ABC, "We will continue to attract overseas doctors because Australia did not train enough of their own doctors in the 1970s and 1980s, so we have to...we have no choice." State health minister Stephen Robertson concurred. "There are towns throughout Australia that if it wasn't for an overseas-trained GP deciding to locate there, that community, whether in Queensland or outback New South Wales or Western Australia, simply wouldn't have any doctor," Robertson said recently.

The problem, says Australian Doctors Trained Overseas Association (ADTOA) president Andrew Schwartz, is that standards have been compromised in the rush to overcome the shortfall. "The vetting procedures need to be tightened, so long as they don't go overboard (with it)," says Schwartz. "India has some of the finest educational institutions in the world and the ones (doctors) who come here are those who have usually proven themselves in the United Kingdom first." Dr Orekondy says the problem arises because doctors such as Haneef, coming to Australia on a temporary work visa, are not checked for their antecedents as stringently as those overseas medical practitioners who move here permanently.

The ADTOA estimates there are 20,000 practising doctors in Australia who earned their original qualifications overseas—about 40 per cent of the total 50,000 doctors in the country. A substantial percentage of this should be Indians. More than half of Queensland's rural doctors are trained overseas. Schwartz believes the rate of adverse medical outcomes by overseas-trained doctors is no higher than for Australian-trained doctors. In a crisis situation, though, no one looks at statistical details; public opinion is usually a case of perception. This is why a resigned Orekondy says, "We have decided to move forward with another media blitz to counter the bad press—just like we did two years ago."

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