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Fear of being sued may be dragging out health service investigations

The Health and Disability Commissioner says a "more litigious" society may be a factor in lengthy investigations into the health system – with some families waiting years for answers.

Baby Eva tragically died at four weeks. Source: Sunday

The HDC was established in 1994 to resolve complaints in a "fair, simple, speedy, and efficient" way. But some families say the reality quite different, with "agonising" delays in the resolution process.

Andrea Donaldson’s daughter Eva was born at Waikato hospital in 2017 at 28 weeks’ gestation, and died four weeks later.

An ACC report identified multiple issues in the care that Andrea and Eva received, including delays in diagnosing the pelvic aneurisym Andrea suffered, and in the time it took to deliver Eva by emergency caesarean section.

Ms Donaldson believes that if her condition had been diagnosed earlier in the day, and plans to deliver Eva made sooner, her daughter might still be alive.

The Waikato DHB and the consultant obstetrician Dr Sylvia Lin apologised for Andrea Donaldson's loss, but Ms Donaldson says they did not take responsibility for baby Eva's death.

Looking for answers, she took her case to the HDC but, more than three years later, she is still waiting. She asks: "How many other babies and women are at risk while you take three years?"

Her concerns have been echoed by another mother, Cerise Lawn.  Ms Lawn's daughter Ariana was born in 2012 at Taranaki Base Hospital.

A subsequent investigation by the HDC revealed a string of failures, including an obstetrician's failure to adequately resuscitate Ariana on delivery. Ariana, now 8, is severely disabled. 

But while the investigation took just over two years, it took another five years of battling the DHB for compensation and to lift the name suppression of the obstetrician Dr William Arthur Brooks.

The Lawn family believes that protracted communications with the hospital and doctors contributed to the delays.

"We would respond within the time, but then they would ask for extensions and then, 'oh we need more time'."

Health and Disability Commissioner Anthony Hill says that an increasingly litigious society means that providers and institutions are "extremely careful" in how they engage with investigations.  

The Commissioner says there has also been a 25% growth in the HDC’s workload, but only a 10% funding growth "over the last several years". 

But he agrees that for Andrea Donaldson, three years waiting for answers is, "too long, and I do regret that.  I think it's unacceptable."

The HDC is now changing the way maternity cases are investigated, with the Commissioner promising that "a team of specialists" will ensure no maternity investigations take more than two years in the HDC. 

Mr Hill acknowledges that "there have been grievous journeys here, for these families and the experiences they've had".

For the full story, watch SUNDAY tonight at 7.30pm on TVNZ1.