Bacchus Marsh Hospital reduced contractual hours for director of medical services before baby died, court heard

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A court has been told that a Victorian hospital where a group of babies died or were stillborn had cut the hours of its senior medical adviser it hired as director of medical services.

Dr. Lee Gruner served as a consultant with Djerriwarrh Health Services, which ran Bacchus Marsh Hospital, from 2009 to 2015.

A 2015 review of stillbirths and newborn deaths in health services during this period found that seven of them could have been prevented.

Dr Gruner is challenging the allegations made against her by the Medical Board of Australia in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

The Medical Board does not claim that Dr. Gruner was responsible for any deaths, but they say they should have known that she was unable to fulfill the demands of her role in keeping patients safe at Djerriwarrh.

He also alleges that she failed to follow up on the issues and risks she had identified with the health department.

“I would leave”

The court heard that the small maternity ward in Djerriwarrh delivers up to 1,000 babies a year and in 2010 Dr Gruner flagged the strain on its midwifery as an “extreme risk”.

But the following year, the hospital management reduced its working hours.

The hospital’s director of clinical support and quality services, Elizabeth Wilson, told the Australian Health Practitioners Regulatory Agency (AHPRA) in a formal interview that she was not a agreement with this decision.

“We were, uh, cutting costs in all sorts of directions,” the court told AHPRA, Ms. Wilson.

Senior health administrator Dr John Ferguson told the court that Dr Gruner was ‘put in an embarrassment’ and would ‘walk away’ if his hours had been reduced to that extent.

“To accept this and not respond vehemently surprises me for someone of Dr. Gruner’s experience and seriousness,” he said.

Ambiguous advisory role

However, another health administration expert witness, Dr. David Campbell, said Dr. Gruner’s role was an advisory position with no executive responsibilities.

The court heard that Dr Gruner’s responsibilities in his limited contractual hours included staff performance reviews and semi-annual death reviews for patients over the age of 65.

Dr. Campbell said it would have been up to senior hospital staff, such as the CEO, to identify any other significant clinical issues and ask Dr. Gruner to review them.

“And that availability was better than none at all.”

Dr Campbell said clinical governance in hospitals is ultimately the responsibility of boards and CEOs.

The VCAT must determine whether the allegations against Dr. Gruner are proven and, if so, whether they constitute either professional misconduct or unprofessional conduct.

The hearing continues.

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