‘Tarnished reputation’: cardiologist challenges suspension

Prof Darren Walters

[UPDATE: Since this story was written, Professor Walters has won his legal battle against his suspension by Metro North and the allegations against him, which were thrown out in an appeal to the Supreme Court of Queensland on the grounds that “the Investigators made an error of law and denied procedural fairness to Professor Walters in making the findings of maladministration.” He was also awarded 85% costs against Metro North.]

Professor Darren Walters has won the first round of a court battle to challenge his suspension as Director of Cardiology at the Prince Charles Hospital, Brisbane, over allegations of “maladministration” relating to a cardiology rural outreach program.

A judge in the Supreme Court of Queensland has allowed Professor Walters to proceed with a judicial review of his suspension, noting that it has severely damaged his reputation and his ability to work as a cardiologist.

While awarding costs to Professor Walters for his review bid, the judge advised all parties involved in the case to go to mediation rather than continue with what he said would likely be a hugely expensive and damaging legal battle between the cardiologist and his employer, the Metro North Hospital & Health Service.

Professor Walters is seeking to quash an investigator’s report commissioned by the Metro North health service, into the governance of the Indigenous Cardiac Outreach Program (ICOP).

The health service used a report from investigators BDO Pty Ltd as a basis to suspend Professor Walters from his clinical duties at the hospital in September 2018, saying he may be “liable to discipline” for “maladministration”.

The judge said it was not his role to decide the merits of the case, which have yet to be examined in court proceedings, but he concluded that Professor Walters appeared to have a strong case to challenge the investigator’s report as flawed, procedurally unfair and lacking evidence to back its insinuations of corrupt conduct.

The court heard that prior to his suspension Professor Walters had a heavy clinical, teaching and research workload at the Prince Charles Hospital (PCH), one of the largest cardiac units of its type in the country with an operating annual budget of around $78 million and employing 356 staff.

“A large number of employees at PCH have petitioned the Chair of the Board of [Metro North] and politicians with their concerns about the applicant’s suspension, including the loss of his clinical leadership, mentoring and skills from the cardiac program and an increase in waiting times for patients to have urgent surgical interventions,” the court judgement noted.

While suspended on his base salary, Professor Walter’s inability to work at the hospital meant that he missed out on overtime payments and also on private work he would have done via the hospital. The suspension had tarnished his reputation in the cardiology community and damaged his ability to practise at other hospitals, the court heard.

“I imagine that many members of the public would be curious as to why, assuming the validity of the [investigator’s] findings in relation to alleged neglect in governance of the ICOP, it was thought necessary to suspend [Professor Walters] from his important clinical work at PCH and all other facilities in the Metro North area,” the judge noted.

He strongly recommended early resolution of the matter via mediation, which would enable Professor Walters to “devote his time and energy to the practice of cardiology, rather than to being a litigant” and the health service managers to “devote resources to the health care of Queenslanders and reducing hospital waiting lists, rather than to litigation.”

“A good start, with or without the assistance of a mediator, would be for [investigator] BDO to withdraw any insinuation of corrupt conduct made in its report if, on reflection, there is no evidence to support such a serious insinuation and it was made without according the applicant natural justice in relation to that matter,” he said.

“If the matter proceeds to a final hearing then the parties will be airing dirty laundry in public, at great private and public cost,” the judge warned.

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