Probe into Missing hospital files

Estelle Ellis

MEDICAL records are disappearing at an alarming rate from the Port Elizabeth Hospital Complex – many of them allegedly at the instruction of unscrupulous lawyers who want to sue the state on behalf of patients.

The problem is especially prevalent at Livingstone Hospital in connection with cases involving patients with possible claims against the Road Accident Fund or damages claims for negligence.

Hospital records are used to verify the severity of symptoms, or counter exaggerated or fake claims.

Lost records often mean there is nothing to ratify – or disprove – a patient’s claim of injury or negligence by the hospital.

Eastern Cape Health spokesman Sizwe Kupelo said the theft of patients’ records was “particularly rife” in the Port Elizabeth area and was costing taxpayers millions of rand.

He said they had been aware of the problem for a few months and the department was currently assisting police in a national investigation into the activities of a syndicate “even involving professionals like lawyers”.

Confidential sources at the PE Hospital Complex said records disappeared daily. The suspicion has fallen on nurses and porters, some allegedly paid by ambulance-chasing attorneys or patients who themselves remove their medical records when they leave the hospital.

According to the Health Professions Council of SA, records must be kept in a safe place under lock and key, yet files can often be seen at patients’ bedsides or stacked up at nurses stations.

Kupelo said their preliminary findings, which led to the arrest of a nurse from Lusikisiki on January 25, were that the records were handed over to unscrupulous lawyers who sued the hospital for damages. “We cannot defend ourselves in these cases as we do not have the records,” he said.

This was confirmed by Dr Aydin Vehbi, the head of clinical governance at the PE Hospital Complex, when he deposed two affidavits in 2009 during several court hearings regarding a damages claim instituted by Port Elizabeth couple Errol and Patricia van Vuuren.

Their baby died in August 2005 and they blamed medical staff at Dora Nginza Hospital for the death.

Vehbi said in an affidavit that he had searched “high and low” but could not find their hospital file.

The missing file meant the hospital could not defend itself against the claim. Eventually, the court found Mrs Van Vuuren had taken her file from the hospital after her stay. Legal notices forcing the Van Vuurens to return the medical records were served and the Port Elizabeth High Court found the couple was not open and honest and dismissed their claim.

“We are getting to the bottom of the activities of the syndicate,” Kupelo said. “We will leave no stone unturned. The arrest at Lusikisiki was just the beginning.”

He said lost medical records were costing the taxpayers millions. “If any patient or their legal representative wants access to their file, they can apply formally and they will be given a copy of the file after paying the copying charges,” he said.

Vehbi said it was difficult for him to comment on the extent of theft of hospital records.

“There have been instances when copies of patients’ records have been requested by legal firms and we have been unable to recover the records, only to be sent the records by the attorneys once we have requested they ask their clients whether they do not perhaps have the records because we are unable to trace.

“How these records come to be in the possession of the patient or their attorneys, we can only speculate.”

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